When Swarthmore forgets about class

Published in The Phoenix, 28 April 2005.

“Sharples should have better food. After all, I pay $38,000 to be here!”

Countless students complain about facilities, food, events and the computer network, and express outrage that at such an expensive school anything less than the best is tolerated.

“Because I pay so much” is also used to justify a slew of items people feel entitled to, including brand new high-end public computers every year, air conditioning in dorms, swipe-cards on the laundry machines and starfruit at Essie Mae’s.

Usually, the students who claim their tuition checks entitle them to all the comforts of a posh country club are from wealthy backgrounds themselves.

Because the fact is, not everyone pays $38,000 to be here.

Constantly invoking the amount of money you or your parents contribute suggests that at Swarthmore, not all students are equal. Are those on financial aid less entitled to educational fulfillment? Why this sense of entitlement among students from upper-class or “upper middle-class” backgrounds?

American society itself obscures class distinctions; so long as everyone has equal access, the story goes, we can all become fabulously wealthy. But at Swarthmore an illusion of structural equality deepens the silence about class.

The philosophy behind the Student Activities Fee, for instance, is admirable but flawed: It’s included in tuition costs so that aid can be applied toward it, with the idea that no one will miss a party in order to work another hour of work-study. But because socioeconomic status is never actually addressed, the SAF and similar mechanisms obscure real differences in backgrounds. There’s a reason one of your hallmates from California flies home for Thanksgiving and another doesn’t; there’s a reason some of your friends go to restaurants and clubs in Philly every weekend and others beg off.

A study by Emiliano Rodriguez ’05 and Ryan Budish ’04 concluded last year that the number of low-income students on financial aid has dropped precipitously. From 1999 to 2003, the number of families making more than $80,000 a year and receiving financial aid increased by 145, while the number of families making less than that amount on aid decreased by 114. If this trend continues, the college will soon be giving aid to more of the moderately well-off than to the low-income — but because we all believe we’re equal, such a shift isn’t noticed.

Attention to class, moreover, would add to discussions about gender, race and sexuality. These concerns, while not fully addressed, are at least talked about. Socioeconomics, by contrast, mark invisible dividing lines within the community.

At a workshop on community service earlier this semester, participants were asked to form a line in order of childhood family income. If you’ve never had to complete an activity like that, I can testify that it is supremely difficult.

What was most surprising, though, was that when we had finally worked through all of the awkward questions about schooling and vacations and parents’ occupations, it was those students at the lower end of the spectrum who had the most to say. Sometimes they spoke about feeling left out by richer friends, it’s true, but more often they talked about their family’s self-sacrifice and community solidarity, and described their own sense of privilege in rich cultural backgrounds.

Those on the wealthy end squirmed when asked about how wealth contributed to their success. They were nervous about being perceived as discounting their own privilege, but they didn’t know how to talk about it. So they remained silent.

If we continue to ignore the role of class in our community, that silence will only deepen.

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