Class Dismissed?

Posted by The Editorial Board

Every week, Skidmore plays host to a number of events designed to encourage conversations about race, ethnicity, sex and gender. Whether these forums achieve their goals is a different issue, but the panels, film showings, dialogues and lectures continue to appear on the college calendar every month. Where Skidmore falls short, however, is on the topic of socioeconomic class (SES). The Editorial Board suggests that conversations about class on this campus are lacking and proposes that the student body make a concerted effort to engage in these discussions to broaden perspectives and make the campus climate more supportive for all students.

General perception on this campus is that Skidmore College is a "rich" campus and that the majority of students here do not need to worry about money. One editor recalls a friend's shock upon learning she did not have a car on campus, another speaks of the incredibly high cost of the art supplies required for studio classes (often upwards of $400). The frequency with which students are expected to order take out, partake in wine and cheese nights or take an $80 taxi ride to Albany assumes a certain level of expendable income. While this perception is no doubt rooted in students' experiences here, the narrowness of this statement omits a significant proportion of the student body.

In the 2011-2012 school year, 46% of Skidmore students received financial aid, with 15% receiving Pell Grants (the primary form of government financial aid). As a point of comparison, in the same academic year, 37% of all undergraduate students nationwide (25.2 million students) received Pell Grants. At Union College, a member (with Skidmore) of the New York Six consortium, 72% of students receive some sort of financial aid and 17% receive Pell Grants; at Vassar College, whose applicant pool typically overlaps significantly with Skidmore's, the percentages are 63% and 22%, respectively. Vassar is need-blind (an applicant's financial situation does not factor into the admissions decision and the college completely meets all demonstrated need); Skidmore and Union are not. It is also worth noting that not all students who pay full tuition do so without feeling any financial constraints. The picture of socioeconomic status on our campus (and peer institutions) is more complex and encompasses a wider spectrum than the majority of the campus community believes.

Discussions about class are difficult and often uncomfortable. Students across the socioeconomic spectrum are quick to feel embarrassed or ashamed about their income bracket. Class is an elusive measure. Unlike the more phenotypic race or gender, it is easy to hide class as we walk around campus from day to day. Anonymity of class combined with the rhetoric of the "rich campus" makes SES a difficult topic to broach.

Skidmore has addressed class issues before, but campus events that do address SES rarely bring the issue of class back to how it plays out on this campus. The Classless Society exhibit in the Tang Teaching Museum, for example, encourages us to examine SES in America in light of statistics and photographs. We are distanced from the reality of class diversity on Skidmore's campus when we view class in a museum exhibit but fail to speak to our peers about their experiences with money on this campus.

Skidmore has hosted panel discussions and speakers in recent years to discuss class (the Cornel West lecture in Spring 2011 and the Intersections panel series from the 2010-2011 academic year come to mind), but these forums are largely focused on the theoretical or the stories of a select few, rather than taking the form of a dialogue or discussion. These are informative events and they lay the foundation for the campus community to build on. We as a campus community need to build on this foundation and establish forums where more people's voices and stories can be heard.

Facilitating conversations about the effect that class has on students' experiences on campus can produce concrete results. Researchers from Stanford and Northwestern recently found that a one-hour program for first year students where upperclassmen talk about the effect that their class has on their college experience decreases the class achievement gap for the first-year students by 63% over the course of that academic school year. Reintroducing class into the conversation, perhaps as an FYE workshop or a series of facilitated dialogues, could improve the college experience from the first year on.

It is easy to understand that less than one-fifth of Skidmore's student body receives Pell grants. The challenge lies in humanizing the statistic, in understanding the stories behind these numbers. The current conversation too often resides only in the theoretical. This is a topic that is directly relevant to each and every student on campus. It is crucial that we renew the conversation about perceptions and experiences of class on Skidmore's campus. SES is a personal, difficult topic. Not everyone wants to take part in this conversation. But it is important that there is a space for those who do want to talk and to listen, to come forward and join in, and most importantly, that we as a community are made aware that not every student holds the same financial standing. That a student doesn't have a car to park on campus should not shock anyone.

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