Economic barriers in the elite University (and in science)

This week at #scio14, Danielle Lee is leading a discussion on privilege in science. I'd started this post and abandoned it a few weeks back, but I think it speaks to a similar phenomenon as she describes in her post. Low-income students are being lost not only to science, but often to the college experience in general. This is amplified at elite institutions, but even at the public institutions I've worked at, lower income students are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to preparing for any kind of graduate or professional post-bac training. 

My first introduction to one of my college roommates was via snail mail, back in the day. She had 4 names; her two middle names were both honoring sides of her highly-distinguished family. She was fourth generation Yale and had attended the best private schools her entire life. My other roommate was the daughter of a very successful South Korean businessman, and had spent her high school years at an elite private all-girls' institution.

Then there was me. I was only the second person in the history of my school to attend an Ivy league university. (The first, a generation prior, had gone to Dartmouth on a football scholarship). I grew up in the country, lower middle-class but not precisely poor, playing on my Grandma's farm and spending way too much time and gas money driving around our enormous  rural school district to pick up friends. I had graduated at the top of my class of 67 at my small high school, which was situated, literally, in the middle of cornfields. Though we had many excellent teachers and I feel I received a good education, we didn't even have a single Advanced Placement course.

My arrival at Yale was quite the culture shock. When classmates found out about my background, the questions frequently turned to cow-tipping (which apparently all the urban kids knew about, but I'd never heard of. No one who actually grew up around cows would try to do something so stupid) and pointing out my lack of cultural experiences (wow, you've never been to Europe? You don't know that when one refers to The City, that means New York? What do you mean, you'd never seen the ocean before coming to Connecticut?) During my entire 4 years, I only met a few others from rural areas. Even the other public school kids were often vastly wealthier than I was, and had gone to public schools which were well-funded and top-rated in their state, rather than a struggling rural school like mine, always one levy failure away from disaster. One of my classmates had a sports arena on campus named for his family. Receiving expensive cars "on a whim" or other pricey gifts during family visits was not uncommon. Meanwhile, I worked several jobs at a time--at the Yale Telefund, the dining hall,  and waitressing at a local restaurant--just to pay the bills. I was in class with these kids, but make no mistake--I was not *of* their class.

Though racial diversity at Yale was fairly decent while I was there (that is to say, it was in line with other "elite" institutions, even though it certainly was not representative of the U.S. as a whole), economic diversity was not. Since my time here, Yale has instituted some policies to attract more high-achieving low-income students to the university. (The cover of the Yale Alumni Magazine reporting this story even calls such students "low-hanging fruit," noting that "they're out there--but hard to find"--an admission that few of us were "in there" at Yale). The article points out that now, Yale waives the parental contribution to a student's education for families making under $65,000/year. When I attended, Yale had assumed that parents would finance the education--something many of us from lower incomes know was impossible. As such, I and others like me ended up taking out loans for both the "student contribution" and for our expected parents' part of the bill, even as most of us worked long hours while attending to pay for our living expenses.

This alone set many of us apart from our classmates. Unlike many of our peers, we were not free to focus on our studies. Extracurricular activities? Not a chance. Most semesters I worked at least 20 hours/week, sometimes up to 40, on nights and weekends. This not only further divided me from my wealthier contemporaries who I was serving in the dining halls or begging their alumni parent donors to contribute to Yale,but also meant that I wasn't able to socialize as much or attend many University events. I couldn't go on spring break trips to tropical beaches, or even weekend road trips as I typically fit in 4-5 work shifts from Friday through Sunday.

Even with these programs in place, for the class of 2017, the article notes that 69% of Yalies come from families that make $120,000 or more per year. This means that over 2/3 of the student body comes from families in the top 10% of income earners in the US. Even when lower-income students have been actively recruited:

"...the odds were overwhelming that you came from one of just 15 urban areas: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Portland, Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. The gears of meritocracy turn most reliably in our cities. Of the poor, smart kids who applied to elite schools in the Hoxby-Avery dataset, a mere 21 percent lived outside an urban area."

Recently at Slate, Matthew Yglesias discussed a similar issue, suggesting that one shouldn't donate to elite schools, because even if the goal would be to earmark for financial aid for impoverished students, that's such a small piece of the pie:

"You'll often hear that such-and-such a donation to an already-wealthy institution is a great idea because it's going to financial aid. But when only about 5 percent of your class is coming from the bottom quarter of the income distribution (and we can assume that very little of that 5% is coming from the really truly poor) then even this financial aid is extremely poorly targeted. Meanwhile, the demographics of highly selective institutions reveal that highly selective institutions remain what they always have been—mechanisms for the perpetuation of inequality and hierarchy."

One thing the YAM article didn't discuss--perhaps because it was written by an alum whose route to Yale included "load[ing] up our Mercedes station wagon in our affluent neighborhood in Washington, DC" rather than by the swine showman classmate he mentions, is what happens to kids like me when we're back home. Though not written specifically about Yale, this post discusses the divide that such an education can cause between one's "new" life as a student at an elite college and at the same time, remembering who you are and what you came from: "Class mobility is not just a process of struggling to fit in amongst your new peers, but also feeling like you’re betraying your roots. It’s really, really difficult to successfully walk on both sides of an invisible line." Like many who attend Harvard and Yale, when I was at home and was asked about college and where I attended, I'd just mumble "Connecticut," rather than get into an awkward conversation about Yale that made people from home look at me as if I'd suddenly sprouted an extra head. This wasn't something my peers from more privileged backgrounds had to deal with; it was more frequently assumed that they'd be attending universities like Yale, after graduating from similarly elite private schools.

There's also the worry that we're disappointing people back home if we don't succeed. The New York Times recently profiled two young men from low-income backgrounds who ended up attending Harvard and Yale. Both talk about pressure they feel and though they don't name it, imposter syndrome shines through in their essays. The Harvard undergrad, Justin Porter, illuminates some reasons why initiatives like these to lure "atypical" Ivy students alone are not enough:

I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”

This is one thing that no amount of academic preparation can really prepare you for. It was incredibly foreign to me to suddenly be in a place where parents thought nothing of sending their kids a thousand dollars to throw a party for their dorm floor; one where my roomates took me out not to the local Ponderosa or Pizza Hut, but to $50-an-entree places with lines of forks and spoons I'd only seen in movies, or to members-only dining experiences. Alien environment, indeed. And with all of this, I am still very aware that I still have privileges that others who may share my economic situation (or indeed, like many at Yale, far surpass it) do not.

Finally, as I noted at the start, privilege is one of the topics at the upcoming ScienceOnline conference. I can't attend this year because of the new baby, but the issue of economic privilege experienced by those at elite colleges is very similar to that which hinder those looking to become professional scientists, as previously discussed by Danielle (and also in an older post here which addressed lack of resources) and by Miriam Goldstein. Entering the science field from an economically disadvantaged background carries with it many of the same issues as does entering an elite college. The culture is foreign, the price of membership is costly, and even if you succeed, you can feel alienated from your home community. Those of us who are in positions of privilege--and especially who know all too well some of the difficulties current students face--must work to reduce these barriers when we can, and to at least make them more visible to colleagues who come from backgrounds where they may not even recognize their own privilege or the challenges their students are facing on so many levels. If we want science to be a more diverse occupation, and to have the best and brightest students continue in the field, we must do what we can to be sensitive to the barriers that have been erected, and actively work to tear them down.

[Edited to add this excellent piece in the Atlantic].


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I can't help but wonder if this is a particularly American experience.

I grew up in a rural environment in Canada. I went to a regional undergraduate university, but several of my high school cohort went away to major Canadian universities. I never heard any of them talking about the kind of experiences that you describe here.

The American university system strikes me as a little unusual in how distinctly "tiered" it is, particularly in regards to money.

By Zen Faulkes (not verified) on 26 Feb 2014 #permalink

May very well be. I think it gets amplified at places like Yale as well. Other friends of mine with the same background who went to state schools, or even private colleges but not of Ivy League reputation, didn't experience this level of classism.

I'm not so certain it is strictly an American experience. When I was in college, I was only one of a small handful of students that had to work to pay bills. I was often asked to participate in many extracurricular projects and had to turn down most of them because I couldn't afford to lose the time at work. When some people found out that I was paying my own way through college, the most common question was, "why don't you just get your parents to pay for it?". It still frustrates me when I think about it.