Verbum Ultimum: Money Matters
This term, we have devoted our special issue to class and money at the College. Socioeconomic status, and the privileges or lack thereof that come with it, affect every aspect of our lives.
Class manifests itself in the clothes that we wear, the textbooks we can or cannot afford, the financial dues we pay to social organizations and the ability to go into town for a burger and a pint of beer on a Friday night. It influences who is more successful in corporate recruiting, who can experiment with their post-collegiate plans, who can afford to take an unpaid internship.
Class also has more subtle manifestations, such as the various cultural norms and values ingrained in each of us — something that is not always recognized in both academic and social settings. It presents itself in one’s knowledge of art history and literature, in popular culture, in the level and quality of education your family has received, in the amount and quality of medical care which is available to you, in opportunities to travel around the country and the world. Simply put, class is everywhere.
The majority of Dartmouth students do not necessarily have to think about class and money on a daily basis. Fifty-nine percent of the student body comes from an annual household income of over $200,000 — which represents only six percent of the United States population. Yet, when asked to self-report their family income and perception of their class status, 70 percent of these students defined themselves as somewhere in the middle class. Similarly, only 11 percent of Dartmouth students represent the bottom 40 percent of Americans by household income.
The disparity in these numbers reflects an often overlooked dynamic on campus. Just as we critically analyze and engage with issues of sexual assault, binge drinking and exclusivity, we must also consider how class manifests itself on our campus. Money affects our lives in so many ways. It does not reflect intelligence or work ethic, but it informs all of our collective knowledge, abilities and experiences. Whether we want to admit it or not, the survey data suggests a disconnect between students’ perceptions and reality. Leaders of organizations have a particular responsibility to be more conscious of how socioeconomic status impacts students’ lives, because of their increased influence on individuals’ opportunities and experiences.
Differences in socioeconomic status will reverberate across our lives — and despite the variations in income mentioned above, Dartmouth offers students the chance to be on more equal footing than may be possible in the broader world. Though there are several concrete steps administrators can take — increasing financial aid for subsidiary expenses, creating legacy-blind admissions and redirecting outreach from elite secondary schools to lower-income areas — we must also learn how to discuss these issues while in this relatively open and diverse environment.
Dartmouth is a community, and though in many ways both our thoughts and actions reflect this, we must think more critically about the issues that color our lives even when not readily apparent. Though a lack of awareness about socioeconomic status and privilege is not endemic to Dartmouth — this is a problem in American elite education at large — each of us has the ability to start making change here and now. Increasing the percentage of students from a lower socioeconomic background will be meaningless if our culture does not adapt to become more open to all students, regardless of their background.