The Silent Denominator

by Nancy Bloomfield | 4/14/99 5:00am

Over the past year, our campus has had many discussions about categories that we use to define and divide ourselves. In the fall, the ghetto party sparked dialogue about race. In the winter, the "Greek issue" was paramount. Most recently, we have been confronted by the issues of sexual and religious preferences. Palaeopitus would like to bring to your attention the topic of socioeconomic status (SES). It is a less salient categorization than the previously mentioned ones, but for that exact reason this "silent denominator" is one of the most important to recognize.

Some argue that it is inappropriate to try and equalize the Dartmouth campus in regards to SES because it is a natural inequality and exists in the "real world." However, the time we spend here at Dartmouth is unique, and within this microcosm we have the ability to and the privilege of creating equal opportunities for all who come to Hanover. Our college encourages us to participate in a variety of activities that contribute to the "quintessential" or "well-rounded" Dartmouth experience. The diversity of our classes is astounding, a majority of the students travel abroad on a LSA or FSP, many participate in interesting leave term internships, all students are required to take three PE classes to graduate, athletic events are always occurring, exciting miniversity classes are offered each term, and the HOP provides a wealth of cultural events. The irony is that although these activities are encouraged and occasionally required the college does not also ensure that all students have the ability to partake in them.

Consider the following examples: It's the spring term of your first year at Dartmouth and you're anxious to get your P. E. requirement filled before the $50 fine comes your way. As you and your roommate scan the P. E. blitz bulletin, you notice that many classes, including advanced fencing, ballroom dance, golf, horseback riding, skeet shooting, modern dance, group cycling, swimming, yoga, boxaerobics, fly fishing, and hiking, cost more than $30. Even the Rape Aggression Defense class (RAD) costs $20, and some classes such as outdoor climbing and scuba diving cost over $100 or $200. Though many of these classes spark your interest, you once again resolve yourself to take Tae Kwon Do for the third time because it doesn't require a fee. Another scenario to consider is the high school hockey player who would love to support the Dartmouth teams, but is unable to attend because of the required entrance fee. What about the Government major who is all ready to go to London on the FSP and then cancels when she finds out the amount of funds she will need to provide for her own meals and transportation. The most striking example of how socioeconomic limitations hinder the Dartmouth experience is the case where a student is unable to take a course because of the inordinate fees required for texts and supplies or performs poorly because of the total lack or small quantity of materials on reserve and the limited hours of access to these resources.

Fortunately, these unfortunate situations can be ameliorated through structural reorganization of College policies. Departments could set a cap for the amount of money each student would need to invest in each course and ensure that an adequate number of every required text is on reserve. In addition, the College could start a centralized book exchange that loaned students texts for the term and provided incentives for students to loan their books to others. To address the issue of unequal access to cultural and athletic activities, the Undergraduate Finance Committee (UFC) should consider spending a large portion of its resources to subidize these events rather than devoting their money to endless programming. This could ensure that any student could take any P. E. or miniversity course for $10, for example. In essence, there are several structural changes that The College could enact to ensure more equitable access to all parts the Dartmouth experience.

It is important to recognize that change needs to occur not only at the organizational level, but also at the individual level. We can all benefit by being sensitive to the fact that many educational and recreational experiences are not affordable to everyone on campus. Many students remained on campus during this past spring break for financial reasons, while others flew to a tropical paradise for the week. We're not suggesting that all students should remain on campus for spring break to make things equal, but would just like to suggest that privilege is something to be aware of as you chat about break with your acquaintances. In general, the importance that we place on money and on doing things that require a lot of money seems far too great on this campus, not to mention in this country. When student groups focus so much of their attention on demanding more money from the administration for programming events, what message does that reinforce? Is money the ultimate solution, or would more creativity do the job?

If you have any thoughts about these issues as you read this article, please feel free to share them in an editorial or by contacting us. We're interested in your ideas about how this campus can support equitable educational and social experiences for you!