In 2005, a New York Times survey of randomly selected Americans revealed that no less than 92% believed themselves part of the middle/working class. Of the 8% who identified otherwise, 7% said they belonged to the lower class and 1% to the upper. The Times is a city paper, but it’s distributed and consumed nationwide. Many of the readers skimming Sunday Styles for the latest normcore cotton t-shirts (only $155!) belong to the 92% of Americans who say they are middle class.
Swarthmore College data collection was performed in a series of informal interviews conducted by a white, “middle-class” female, aged 19. Sample size of 13, plus occasional interjections by eavesdropping friends.
Nine students (69.2%) say they are middle class. Of these, two say they are “working-” or “lower-middle class,” and one is here on a complete scholarship. Four others say they are “upper-middle class,” and two of those pay full tuition. The remaining students are split, with two who say they are from lower class backgrounds and two who say they are from the upper class.
Although my survey is hardly scientific, it seems to reflect the trend found by the New York Times, where people with a range of family incomes and lifestyles are claiming middle class status rather than choosing labels which allow them to be mapped onto a class-privilege spectrum. According to the US Department of Commerce, this is in part because there are “certain values and expectations, primarily about economic security, safety, and protection, [which] are strongly associated with the middle class. Examples of middle class values…include: strong orientation toward planning for the future; control over one’s destiny; [and] movement up the socioeconomic ladder through hard work and education.”
We assume that the nation, the New York Times readership, and the Swarthmore student body aim to espouse these middle class values. However, none of the students I interviewed focused on values when trying to define the middle class. A more common theme was context. Those who called themselves middle class had known many people richer and poorer than they were and saw that they didn’t belong to either extreme.
Again from the US Department of Commerce: “[Middle class families] want economic opportunities for their children and therefore want to provide them with a college education…”
Eli describes his background as solidly middle class. His parents are “very hardworking people” who together hold a total of five jobs. Eli himself spent all of high school working part time so that he could have his own spending money. Although his parents agreed to give him $40 in allowance for each weekend, the family was living paycheck to paycheck, so they couldn’t always keep the promise.
Eli attended a public magnet high school where nearly everyone expected to continue on to college. When it came time for him to apply to schools, his parents urged him to consider institutions known for their good financial aid. He chose to apply ED II to Swarthmore and was accepted. The family was first delighted, then distressed. Although they had always expected Eli’s higher education to be a huge financial burden, the concrete costs were shockingly steep.
Eli’s parents contacted the Swarthmore financial aid office and made an appeal. Several weeks of fighting and anxiety followed as they waited for a response. Eli’s parents spent some of the time looking into loans, but warned him that if they weren’t offered a better deal, he would have to rescind the offer of admission.
Luckily, Swarthmore came through with a little more money. Eli’s parents took out the loans they had researched and told him they could make it work.
Joe thinks of himself as upper middle class. His parents used to say that they could only guarantee him two things (and everything else he’d have to get on his own): straight teeth and a good education. Actually, he now has three things: an even smile, one semester left at Swat, and the satisfaction of a kept promise.
Both of Joe’s parents worked in government for most of his life. He didn’t need to consider financial aid as a factor when he was applying to college. However, in order to send him here, his family took out loans that he expects will require decades to pay off. Joe himself doesn’t anticipate making a whole lot of money after college; he only wants moral satisfaction and the security of not living paycheck to paycheck.
One of the things Joe appreciates about Swarthmore is that it’s easy to avoid spending on a day to day basis. With events free of charge and an implied distaste for displays of wealth, he finds that it’s usually hard to guess people’s financial backgrounds.
I asked him if he thought that a de-emphasis of class differences was, overall, a good thing. Well of course he did! Had he ever been in a situation where a professor made a wrong assumption about the homogeneity of his/her students’ class status? He wasn’t sure, but he had the impression that the professors in his department were generally sensitive to these issues.
In fact, he’d recently heard a professor give a very fair assessment of class at Swarthmore, which defined status in terms of power rather than economics.
“Is there a political or ruling class in our so-called egalitarian nation? Well, yes. Who is it? It’s you guys. Regardless of where you all came from before Swarthmore, by virtue of being here, and graduating from here with a Swarthmore degree, that makes you part of the political class of this country.”
“Hm.” It was the most animated I’d seen Joe during our conversation. He went on:
“I’ve heard from other professors that while we may all come from different backgrounds in terms of class and societal power, by the time we leave Swarthmore, we are all in the political class.”
Gabe has always identified as part of the middle class. His family has been living in their same region for some six generations and providing for themselves comfortably without any higher education. He is the first one to come to college.
Gabe didn’t undertake his college search with the notion that future success would be dependent on an name-brand degree, so his application process was comparatively low-key. He sent his materials off to a few schools known for giving good financial aid, and during the wait to hear back, he started looking around town for jobs.
“My family is definitely middle class,” he told me, “but while I’m here it’s very easy to feel like everyone is telling us that we’re not, because a lot of us don’t have college, or don’t have high school degrees, because we can’t afford to do things like go to Europe during the summer. Here the perspective on everything is shifted up.”
In high school, Gabe worked with a professor from a nearby university who gave him a lot of advice on how to be successful. It was a first taste of what it felt like to be in an environment where the widely agreed upon definition of “success” was far beyond his family’s aspirations. Still, when Gabe was offered a full scholarship to come to Swarthmore, his relatives were very excited. A few might consider his educational goals “uppity,” but the majority congratulated him: “Good job getting out.”
Gabe arrived at Swarthmore without clear expectations. No one had ever told him what college would be like. He was coming for the money, with the idea that getting a degree would allow him to live an easy life. His attitude aligned with general expectations back home, where people sought jobs that would allow them to support their families. He soon realized that many Swarthmore students were more concerned with jobs that could move the world forward. “Laudable jobs,” he called them.
Gabe has told most of his good friends about his background, and he is surprised to find that it’s not more self evident. It’s often simple for him to guess a person’s means by observing style, technology, and casual conversation about summer plans. In interactions with other self-reported members of the middle class, even standard complaints about Sharples food reveal a degree of entitlement different from his own.
Swarthmore is an “elite” school, but Gabe doesn’t feel part of the “elite.” This is especially confusing because by most outside definitions, he is now the most “elite” member of his family.
According to Joe’s professor, we will all leave Swarthmore endowed with political power, but what about the goal of economic opportunity? Will the advantages we receive actually leverage the sacrifices some families are making just to pay their way through graduation?
Cara’s mother was a McCabe scholar here at Swarthmore in her day. After years as an investment banker, she’s now employed in the nonprofit sector and traveling the world for her job. Her father has taught for a long time now, but before that, there was a period when he stayed at home working on personal projects.
Although she isn’t sure of anything yet, Cara’s plans for her time at Swat seem to reflect the examples of success her parents have set. She anticipates majoring in something practical, and then choosing a minor which allows her to explore other interests. It’s pretty important to her that she be able to support herself as an adult.
Cara knows that she is lucky to not have to worry about financial aid. When she was applying to college, it was already off the table and didn’t factor into her decision at all. Her parents are paying her Swarthmore tuition full price and with no loans.
Dylan’s mother used to be the primary breadwinner for his family. Her earnings allowed them to live comfortably and to send his older siblings to their top-choice colleges. His father has always worked as well, but that job doesn’t pay very much; the major advantage it provided was discounted entry to an excellent private high school.
For Dylan, admission to Swarthmore was at first just a small victory. He’d also been accepted to another liberal arts college higher on his list and was planning to go there in the fall. However, as his family compared the two financial aid packages, Dylan realized that he had to rethink his decision. Swarthmore’s offer would cover nearly half his costs, a much better deal than the other school. He couldn’t afford to pass this up.
By the end of Dylan’s freshman year, it seemed that everything had worked out for the best. He reported feeling happy and settled at Swat, with good grades and a solid group of friends. Back home, things were more stressful; during Dylan’s second semester, his mother had lost her job. However, no one in the family was seriously worried yet. She was already looking for work, and so far Swarthmore’s financial aid policies had proved flexible and generous.
Midway through summer, the family received a brief note from Admissions and Aid which said that Dylan’s scholarship had been cut to just $6,000 for the coming year.
Dylan’s mother called the office. Dylan’s father wrote a letter. Dylan got in touch with one of his professors and asked if he’d vouch for him, affirming that he deserved to be at Swat.
Upon receiving these messages, the financial aid office initiated what would become a tense and frustrating exchange with Dylan’s family. First, they explained to his mother that they’d cut his scholarship because his sister had just graduated college. Without the cost of her tuition, wouldn’t there be more money to spare for Dylan’s?
Actually, Dylan’s mother replied, his sister had attended college on a fairly generous scholarship herself, so the situation really hadn’t changed enough to justify the cuts.
How odd! The words seemed to leer from the final email. There must have been a misunderstanding. If the school had known about his sister’s scholarship before, he wouldn’t have been given such good financial aid in the first place.
At the end of the summer Dylan’s award was doubled to $12,000. It didn’t seem like a great improvement, but it was also better than nothing, and he had old plans to finish his break on a road trip with his siblings. He left home vaguely optimistic and resolved to put everything out of his mind.
When Dylan got back, there were just three days left before the start of school. In his absence his mother had done some serious reckoning. She sat him down and told him that if after one last phone call the school didn’t improve their aid offer, he was going to have to take the semester off to fill out transfer applications and look for a job.
In the end, the school did not improve their aid offer. Dylan is here at Swarthmore only because his older siblings stepped up. Each agreed to take an unwanted job so that together they can contribute the difference between his parents’ contribution, his loans, and Swarthmore’s asking price. This way, Dylan can enjoy the same opportunity they had, to go to a school that he feels excited about.
Dylan arrived as a first-year with clear ideas about what he wanted to study. He also thought that he might go to graduate school and eventually become an academic, which his family encouraged. Now he’s much less sure, but he feels a lot of pressure to live up to expectations, given the sacrifices being made on his behalf.
Angela’s family immigrated to the US when she was 8 years old, following her father’s work. For most of her childhood they lived fairly well, and she always expected to go to college. The wrench in the plans didn’t come until senior year of high school, when her father left.
At first Angela’s father seemed willing to help pay for her education from a distance. Before her freshman year, he filled out the required forms about his assets so that she and her mother could apply for financial aid. However, soon afterward, he changed his mind: he wasn’t going to contribute. The aid award, when it came, did not account for her father’s missing portion. The costs were now far greater than what her mother could afford alone.
Angela and her mother tried to explain to Admissions & Aid why they should no longer consider her father’s earnings when making their scholarship decision. However, Swarthmore has no official procedure for evaluating single-parent households except in cases where one spouse has died. The school can only promise to meet “demonstrated financial need.” Angela had no way to demonstrate the truth, that her father was gone for good.
“We had a very frustrating meeting with [a representative of the office] where they basically told us that they were doing us a favor by even still considering me for financial aid, because I wasn’t submitting new information for my dad; that they were doing me a favor by using old information from him, which I obviously disagree with. Obviously I would’ve much preferred for them to acknowledge my situation as it was… which is that he’s not going to contribute at all.”
Angela is glad that Swarthmore’s financial aid policies are so much better than those of most other schools. She was pushed to apply in the first place when she learned that coming here could be cheaper than going to a community college. But even as she gets ready to graduate, she isn’t sure what to make of this community. A lot of her peers have spent the last four years chasing self-actualization, while she’s struggled with the responsibilities she brought along from home. It’s hard to feel communal in a clutter of individualists.
The Swarthmore Admissions homepage doesn’t mention money at all in a statement to prospective students explaining why they should study the liberal arts.
“A liberal arts education fuels lives of purpose and creativity. Its variety and vitality empower students to excel in a rapidly changing world, fostering civic and social engagement, personal growth, and happiness.”
I like the invocation of the Declaration of Independence at the end there. It made me laugh.
Here’s an interesting statistic: 0 out of 13 subjects interviewed said that they felt like Swarthmore was preparing them adequately for the financial realities of the outside world. I asked them why they thought this was. Some told me it just wasn’t the school’s responsibility to talk students through the basics of paying taxes, buying a house, getting a credit card, budgeting for groceries. Others said the oversight had more troubling implications.
Career Services, for instance, promotes a certain kind of success as the Endgame through their advertisement of unpaid internships, summer classes at prestigious universities, and expensive volunteer positions abroad. These things are only viable options if a student already enjoys some degree of financial security. Can the Endgame, then, only be achieved if students start out on solid footing? And if more practical issues aren’t discussed, is it because there’s an assumption that they aren’t issues at all? That after we graduate, we won’t have to worry about money?
“Most people here, no matter what, will probably be fine because of what they started with,” said Gabe.
“And you don’t have that feeling?” I asked.
He looked startled, then laughed. “No!”
Swarthmore has been advertising its need-blind admissions policy since 1957. Now, only foreign nationals are evaluated during the admissions process for their ability to pay. The office figures aid using a fairly standardized procedure, which weighs different pieces of information to calculate the family’s fair share of expenses. However, the school says it also aims to engage families in a dialogue about what “fair” means.
“Swarthmore makes many generous extra allowances for families’ special circumstances,” said Director of Financial Aid Laura Talbot. “Among those special allowances are eldercare and childcare expenses; the higher cost of living in some areas of the country; a reduced influence of home equity;…medical expenses, including the cost of insurance premiums; younger siblings’ private school tuitions;…parents’ repayment of loans for their own educations; job loss; loss of overtime hours; and ill health.”
The college’s aid awards have been completely loan-free since 2007. Yet for some reason, “some families choose to borrow to pay their shares of Swarthmore expenses rather than spend from assets or from current income. The debt burden of the Class of ’13 was an average of $5,993.”
None of the students I spoke with who were taking out loans thought of them as a choice. If there was a choice, it was between loans and no Swarthmore.
A major goal of need-blind admissions is to make the school as inclusive and diverse as possible. According to Dean of Admissions Jim Bock, a need-blind admission policy and full-needs met/loan-free financial aid have moved things forward in this direction. However, he also acknowledges that “we still have to work to do to get out the word that we are affordable to all deserving students, and promot[e] the values of a residential liberal arts education.”
(Recall: It’s the middle class who is defined by wanting a college education for its children. For children who don’t come from the middle class, the chances of being deemed “deserving” so late in the game are not very good.)
Right now, most outreach is conducted through community-based organizations. The admissions office will pay to fly the contacted students to its biggest campus events, DiscoSwat and Ride the Tide. For the first time this year, DiscoSwat, designed to introduce Swarthmore to prospective students from under-represented groups, included the socioeconomically disadvantaged as a target demographic.
Class background is not a choice, but rather an admissions-validated identity, much like race, gender or sexual orientation. Still, Emily always feels wary of judgment when she’s asked, even in passing, what her parents do. The answer (her father works in a factory, and her mom stays at home) distinguishes her immediately as being from a different class, since her friends’ parents are often doctors, lawyers, or professionals of some kind. Her town didn’t have a lot of socioeconomic diversity. Growing up, she believed her parents when they told her they were middle class, but now she sees things differently.
Emily’s high school was very small because her town was very small. Teachers were recruited from the community and stretched thin over multiple subject areas. AP classes were conducted using distance learning, which operates through a TV.
Most years, only the valedictorian and salutatorian of a graduating class could advance to a four year college, usually an in-state public university. Emily’s class year was an anomaly: she, the valedictorian, left the state to come to Swat, and the salutatorian (who was her boyfriend at the time) left for the Ivy League.
Emily found out about Swarthmore by becoming a Questbridge scholar. The program seeks to “connect the world’s brightest low-income students to America’s best universities and opportunities.” Most of the people she’s met who can relate to her background here are connected with Questbridge as well, or came here through a similar program.
While Emily was in high school, the only recruiters who ever visited were from small state schools, two-year community colleges, or the military. Although not many students wanted to serve, the military had what she describes as a “strong presence.” Everyone was required to take their entrance test, the ASVAB, in school.
(The upper middle class people to whom I recounted this last detail reacted uniformly with shock and horror.)
Most of the friends Emily has made at Swarthmore are very motivated academically; in her department, almost everyone aspires to go to graduate school. Emily would like to go too, but she feels apprehensive about what she will have to leave behind. When she was applying to college, she fully expected to stay in-state. She knew what public school she wanted to attend and looked forward to making it home most weekends. She defied her own expectations by ending up here, where she can travel back no more than once a semester.
Many of the graduate schools Emily’s friends talk about are on the West Coast. Although she knows she can look for opportunities closer to home, professors have told her that if she wants to pursue research in the future, she’ll need to be flexible and move where there’s work.
In her junior year, Emily feels pleased to have adapted so well to Swarthmore. She’s sure she could cope just as well with new changes, but she isn’t sure she wants to.
“I feel like I am moving into a different social class, one that my parents never were in, and that’s strange, definitely unpleasant at times. There’s a sense of guilt because my parents gave up just about everything so that I could go to college, and then – what, am I going to leave them? I could end up really far away and never see them again… It’s not what I want… [but] it feels like achieving the highest form of success is going to put me at a great physical distance, and other distances as well, from my family.”
Emily has found it fairly easy to find understanding friends through the campus group for Questbridge scholars, but she isn’t sure how she would’ve found them on her own. Last year the Intercultural Center began hosting a group for first-generation college students, to mixed reviews. The students I spoke with said that while they appreciated having a safe space to talk about class issues, they didn’t want to section themselves off.
As Dylan and I walked out of McCabe after his interview, we passed his roommate, who’s international and a self-identified member of the upper class. The three of us stopped to chat.
“Americans are really afraid of acknowledging what they are,” said the roommate, after some reflection. “It’s like, there’s this really strong idea of the middle class, but a Swarthmore education costs $60,000 [to be exact, an estimated $62,050 and rising]. If you’re looking at median income, that’s more than the average American family makes in a year.”
(What percentage of Swarthmore students have financial aid helping to pay their 60k? Admissions materials assure us that it’s “over half,” but later on in the same brochure, tucked shyly in parentheses, they clarify “52%.”)
Conversation turned to a campus event we all planned to attend later that day.
“What time is it, again?” asked Dylan.
“Dude, don’t you EVER check the RSD?”
“It’s funny, actually. I think I’ve stopped getting it.”
“Aren’t all enrolled students supposed to get the RSD?” Dylan’s roommate joked. “Maybe this is the school’s way of saying you can’t go here anymore.”
Dylan laughed, but I didn’t feel up to it. We bid our goodbyes and continued downstairs.
“Does he know that you almost really were un-enrolled?”
“No, of course not.”
Sophie’s situation and Dylan’s have a lot in common. Like him, she was offered excellent financial aid her first year, a deciding factor in her college choice. The following year, her aid was cut by $20,000 because her older sister graduated from college. Again, the sister had actually been on a full scholarship, and that spring her mother had lost her job. After a few summer weeks of indecision over whether she’d be able to return to Swat, Sophie ended up taking out a lot of loans.
Unlike Dylan, Sophie decided to confide in her friends during the piece of the summer she spent worrying that she might not make it back to Swat. Her group is a good sample of Swarthmore’s near-even split of students on and off financial aid. The ones who had their own struggles to report with the financial office seemed to know what to say, but the sympathy she received from the others felt almost trite to her.
The choice to take out loans allowed Sophie to continue at Swarthmore, but she’s now on track to graduate with $45,000 in debt and still thinking about how the discussion of money factors into her relationships.
“[Some of my friends might] care about spending $100, but it’s because [they] are intellectually aware that it’s a big sum of money, and not because they’re watching it diminish…Everybody knows that they don’t want to spend $100, but some people don’t want to spend it because they’ll need it for the summer, and some people are just like, ‘Oh, I can’t really justify this.’”
Last spring, a letter in the Daily Princetonian garnered attention nationwide for what many perceived as a crude display of elitism and entitlement. It was written by Susan Patton, a member of one of the school’s first coed graduating classes, and titled “Advice to the young women of Princeton: the daughters I never had.” Patton used her platform mainly to urge current Princeton undergraduates to search for a spouse before they left the college. Her rationale was that after graduation, women would be unlikely to encounter men of their own intellectual caliber who weren’t intimidated by their power and drive. She went on to make several other frustrating assumptions, such as suggesting that it was too late for senior girls to take her advice because men are incapable of romantic feeling for women a year or two older than them.
Patton was widely criticized by liberal thinkers for her outdated analysis of women’s issues and the seeming flimsiness of her central conceit. However, Ross Douthat, a columnist for popular middle class newspaper the New York Times, had an interesting take on the backlash.
“[Susan Patton’s] betrayal [to liberal media] consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class [through methods like Ivy League intermarriage, or, say, the Quaker Matchbox].”
So, is college really just a tool of social mobility? And if so, is it an effective one?
The students I interviewed mostly hedged these questions, which produced interesting results.
“College is good for putting you in contact with people you wouldn’t have had contact with before,” said JB, a member of the middle class. “Social mobility: understanding people of other backgrounds. I actually really dislike the other way of thinking about social mobility, which is like, climbing upwards…”
“Because it doesn’t go both ways? If you start at the top, then you never learn what’s underneath?”
Writer and liberal arts graduate David Foster Wallace once said that “the real value of a real education…has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves [of it] over and over…”
Think of all the myths that surround college! The one I grew up with, for instance, was about freedom, with college featured as a natural first step towards adult life. “Once you make it to college, you can have ice cream with your waffles whenever you want,” my mother would tell me when I whined to her about my lack of agency in breakfast choice. (Sharples doesn’t actually serve ice cream until lunch, but I keep the faith).
Other college myths abound. One which is popular here is about finding yourself. This couples neatly with the myth of ascendancy: that is, that by obtaining a college education (and hopefully finding yourself in the process) you will end up becoming someone better. And the world will open itself to you.
Ascendancy is worth different things to different people. The “lower-middle class” and “working class” students I interviewed, for whom the mainstream goals of college represent a move away from their original communities, were all here on full-rides or something close. If they hadn’t been admitted to Swarthmore with such generous scholarships, their options were limited to attending a cheaper state school or joining the workforce. In those cases, these students would have just learned to enjoy a different version of success. Nobody even considered taking out thousands in loans to have more freedom of choice.
The “upper-middle class” students, by contrast, who stand to gain much less from a Swarthmore education, are paradoxically the ones now making huge sacrifices because they believe it’s worth it. Most were raised expecting to come a school like this, so they quickly become angry when logistics prove challenging. Why should Swat make it so hard for them when this is clearly what they deserve?
Maybe the problem with trying to understand Swarthmore as a community is that at its core, it’s something more individualistic, a business. But it wouldn’t be fair to say that we’re just a school full of individualists, when we can only hope to make our families proud. υ