Socioeconomic status difficult topic on campus
Students find it difficult to discuss issues of socioeconomic differences among peers on the Hill
- Breaking barriers to help all students feel at home
- Jewish students and historical perspectives
- On Africa Week: Group provides opportunities for cultural learning
With a comprehensive fee of $51,990 for the 2010-2011 school year, Colby has become one of the most expensive schools in the country. For some students this cost has little impact on their financial budget, while for others it represents a huge burden that amasses large amounts of both debt and stress over the four years and beyond.
This range in student socioeconomic backgrounds contributes greatly to the diversity of the College, yet it remains a topic that is rarely, if ever, discussed openly on campus. Students feel embarrassed, and sometimes even ashamed, of their social class standing, no matter on which end of the spectrum they fall. While the College has made significant improvements in order to both attract and support students from lower social classes, socioeconomic status is still stigmatized on the Hill.
“A lot of assumptions are made, and that’s largely to the extent that people are uncomfortable talking about [socioeconomic backgrounds],” Leslie Hutchings ’11, the current president of the Student Government Association (SGA), said. “I’m not totally sure where we learned to be uncomfortable talking about it, but we are, and a lot of times because people are uncomfortable talking about it or are afraid to bring it up it isn’t acknowledged.”
Despite the school’s focus on diversity in the past few years, socioeconomic diversity continues to be a taboo topic on this campus. Unlike racial identity, many students feel that they can hide their economic class standing from their peers. By dressing a certain way or attending certain events, students feel that they can either play-up or play-down their class status.
But why do students on campus feel uncomfortable discussing their economic backgrounds? Is the Colby community conducive to discourses concerning socioeconomic backgrounds, or are the judgments of others too much for many students to bear?
A student who wished to remain anonymous addressed these questions, saying, “I think it’s hard to be open about your socioeconomic background here, which is funny because I was always very open about it before coming to Colby. The reason why it is hard here is because of the negative or uncomfortable way people react to your circumstances. In order to avoid causing that feeling in others, you learn to lie about yourself, what your parents do, etc., but in doing so it causes one to feel as if they should be ashamed about who they are.”
Shame regarding socioeconomic background, from all points on the scale, has become an accepted, and often ignored, reaction when discussions of wealth come up in conversation. Hutchings admitted that this social norm of hiding one’s socioeconomic class “almost further promotes this culture of shame—shame on all fronts, usually more so at the poles.”
“I think on the spectrum, on each end, it’s hard to talk about it. You don’t want to talk about it if you are on financial aid, and you don’t want to talk about if you’re not on financial aid,” Nicole Sintetos ’12, Pugh Community Board (PCB) chair, said.
Financial aid qualifications, however, don’t always accurately portray a student’s socioeconomic situation. According to the financial aid website, 12 first-year students whose total parent income was between $0-29,999 received institutional grants, yet 23 first-year students whose total parent income was greater than $175,000 received institutional grants as well. Usually the students in higher income bands receiving financial aid are assisted due to multiple children attending costly colleges at the same time.
“When I went to school the tuition wasn’t so expensive so that I never thought that somebody who didn’t get aid was really wealthy, whereas now I would make that assumption,” Steve Thomas, director of admissions, said. “If somebody can pay $52,000 a year out of their cash flow or assets that’s pretty good; I make a pretty good salary, and I couldn’t do it.”
The assumptions made about students from upper and upper-middle class backgrounds have negative connotations, which may or may not be true. “I sometimes get the feeling that, yes, sometimes wealthier students are embarrassed or at least hesitant to share the extent of their families wealth. There are just as many people who flaunt it, though,” an anonymous student said.
No matter how these students portray their backgrounds socially, however, a strong focus of PCB this year is to make students “more aware of privilege, social class and everything that comes with it,” Sintetos said.
“I never really thought of social class before I got to Colby, and it was a moment my freshmen year when I realized how privileged I was, and I think that students who are privileged should be able to say, ‘Yes, I am privileged,’ and not feel guilty about it,” Sintetos said.
PCB is hoping to bring socioeconomic status, as well as other categories of diversity, to the forefront of campus discussions this year. Sintetos further explained, “PCB this year is trying to break the image that diversity is only race, so our PC Coffee topics are spreading from social class to religion to politics. For me, personally, I think that social class is one of the topics that is not talked about on this campus but that everyone is touched by, and it’s a difficult conversation to have because it makes people uncomfortable, but that’s not a reason why we shouldn’t be having these discussions.”
Hutchings acknowledged that SGA is also addressing socioeconomic status of students at the College.
SGA has created a taskforce that is dedicated entirely to socioeconomic differences on the Hill. Members of this taskforce conduct interviews with a wide variety of people on campus and collect information about the issue.
Currently, 70 to 80 percent of the taskforce is working on initiatives that will help alleviate the extra costs of college, such as books and supplies, for students in need.
“We’re looking at textbook rental services and coordinating that with the library and the bookstore,” Hutchings said. “In terms of supplies, we just met with [Assistant Director of Campus Life] Katrina Danby and talked about this initiative in which each Community Advisor (CA) will have a box of supplies in his or her room, and he or she will announce at the beginning of each semester, ‘Listen, if you’re struggling to put together money to buy supplies like binders, notebooks or pens, I have some in my room. You can come talk to me, and it will be totally confidential.’”
The SGA crafted this initiative in hopes that students who cannot afford the supplies they need for school will be able to receive them free of cost. Other students would donate supplies that they no longer need to the SGA, and the SGA or the Office of Campus Life would cover the cost of any extra supplies.
SGA also hopes to increase visibility funds that are available to students in need. “A lot of times if a student really wants to do things on campus there are ways to find money. The problem is that it can sometimes be hard to find these things. By senior year students usually have the hang of things and know where to look and what resources to rely on, but especially as first-years you come in and you’re like ‘I don’t know what to do,’” Hutchings said.
The College’s administration has made several attempts to diversify the social classes that are represented on campus. “[The diversity] has definitely broadened, really in any kind of diversity it has—geographic, ethnic and certainly in socioeconomic,” Thomas said. “I think our aid is very generous for those who get it; we meet the full need of every admitted student.”
Recent changes in the College’s policies have made a Colby education more accessible to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds. In 2008 the College replaced the loans awarded in financial aid packages with grants, thereby significantly cutting down on/decreasing students’ debt after graduation. The College also eliminated its application fee for students from Maine, students submitting applications electronically and students with financial burdens.
The Career Center is also helping students from lower-class families locate the resources and privileges that are readily available to their wealthier peers. While students with wealthy parents might have automatic connections that allow them to obtain internships and jobs, the Career Center enables all students to make these connections through networking opportunities and an alumni database.
Increased dialogue about socioeconomic diversity, however, will remain crucial in improving all students’ experiences the on the Hill. “I think [more discussion on socioeconomic status] would be fabulous,” Sintetos said. “I think one coffeehouse on social class is not enough, and it’s something we have to continue into the next semester and the year after. I think social class is one of those aspects of an identity that can remain invisible, and, just as with race and sexual orientation, things can be said when people aren’t aware that hurt others’ feelings. The more we talk about it, the healthier our community will be.”