Growing socioeconomic diversity contributes to subtle inequalities

The College has diversified significantly as a community due to a variety of decisions made by the administration and implemented through admissions, particularly over the last decade. As a result, the campus has seen not only a change in the ethnic and educational backgrounds of students, but also in the typical socioeconomic standing of the Williams student.

While it is impossible to describe the spread of family incomes as students who are not on financial aid do not submit any financial information, the statistics available on the changes in financial aid thresholds show a drastic change over the decades. “When I first started in the early ’80s, if a family made $100,000 there was no chance [they would receive aid],” said Paul Boyer, director of financial aid. “[Almost] 30 years later we have some families with no assets and multiple children, but tipping the scale at over $300,000 in income, qualifying for small amounts of financial aid.”

Beginning with class of 1988, which entered the College in the 1984-85 school year, the College has never awarded financial aid to less than 35 percent of the incoming class. However, it only awarded greater than 44 percent of the incoming class with aid once before the 1999-2000 school year. That statistic has changed drastically in the last decade: In seven of last 10 incoming classes, more than 44 percent of students have received aid. Most recently, 53 percent of students in the class of 2013 were awarded aid.
This precipitous change extends from the percentage of students receiving aid to the amount of aid allotted per student. According to Boyer, about 20 percent of students on in the class of 2013 financial aid are not asked to pay for either tuition or room and board at all, while 63 percent of students receive 100 percent of their tuition. Sixteen percent of these current first-years receive between 75 percent and 99 percent of tuition costs, and only 29 percent receive between one percent and 74 percent of their tuition from aid. In contrast, in the class of 2003, only 43 percent of students received 100 percent aid, 22 percent received between 75 percent and 99 percent of tuition costs, and 34 percent received between one percent and 74 percent.

The increase in the percentage of students receiving full tuition expenses occurred most intensely in the last five years, when the percentage of students who received between 75 and 99 percent of tuition costs dropped from 29 percent to 16 percent and the number of students receiving full aid increased from 49 percent to 63 percent. “It has less to do with what has happened with the economy and more to do with what the admissions office is doing in terms of socioeconomic diversity,” Boyer said. According to Boyer, the Admission Office began to seek out students who were likely to be 100 percent aided beginning with the class of 2009, through participation in programs like QuestBridge and Student Search.

Staff and faculty perspectives

However, the complex interactions of socioeconomic class on campus cannot be readily discerned through statistics. “It’s really interesting, because it’s probably more visible than we allow ourselves to believe it is,” said Christina Cruz.Cruz worked for the College  for 25 years in varying capacities, including women’s crew coach, construction project manager for Facilities and most recently as research analyst for the Office of Strategic Planning and Institutional Diversity (OSPID). “For students of lesser means it’s more visible than we [as faculty and staff] know,” she said.

Cruz offers a unique perspective on socioeconomic class because she has conducted research for OSPID on various aspects of diversity and inclusion on campus. She mentioned a variety of factors that can contribute to a sense of socioeconomic inequity among students of lower socioeconomic status, from conversations about family holidays to manners of speech or dress.

“All these little indications of class add up,” she said. “And all of them are visible, as they should be, because we don’t want anyone to be ashamed of or feel guilty about who they are and then try hide it or change. That would be antithetical to our work for diversity and inclusion. But it’s still intimidating for students who have less.”

According to Cruz, the implied equation of money with power can lead students of modest financial means to perceive themselves as invisible or less significant on campus.

While staff and faculty seem to agree that students are more aware of socioeconomic class issues than professors, the prevailing sentiment is that class is much less noticeable than it once was, or it could be. “I don’t think of class being very visible among students on campus,” said Bryce Babcock, coordinator of science facilities and staff physicist. “Dress standards have changed a lot over the years, so that such superficial indicators don’t necessarily give as much of an indication anymore.” Babcock also noted that other potential socioeconomic indicators, such as the sort of housing students live in, are muted because of the nature of the College community.

Professor of History Eiko Siniawer ’97 echoed Babcock, but noted that socioeconomic differences are noticeable in other ways. “I think that socioeconomic class can be quite invisible at Williams, especially compared to other more visible markers of identity such as race and ethnicity,” Siniawer said. “There are aspects of the culture at the College that tend to pave over socioeconomic differences, which might be more prominent at a place where what one wears, what car one drives, or where one lives are more important signals of socioeconomic status.  Here, the signs are more subtle – like working a campus job.”

Siniawer commended the College for its efforts thus far in limiting the impact of class. “The College has made significant strides in addressing some issues that have put students in disadvantageous or awkward positions, [such as] closing down the 1914 Library and not approaching everyone in an entry or house to pay dues,” she said.

Associate Director of Admission Sean Logan ’88 agreed with Siniawer. “I think Williams has done a wonderful job of trying to level the playing field for all financial aid students on this campus,” Logan said, citing the array of free or financially accessible events and academic resources. “Probably more so than 99 percent of the 3000 colleges and universities in the country, Williams has created a community where you do not need money to be fully engaged citizen.” However, he cautioned against utopian dreams. “Like any community that encompasses many different ethnic, cultural, racial, socioeconomic and other diversities, without continuous dialogue, stereotypes will continue to linger,” he said.

While the College has made a variety of efforts to limit the effects of socioeconomic difference, many issues surrounding class still remain. One place that it is clear is among the faculty and staff.

“The distinctions are not so hidden [in] the differences between academic, administrative and support staff,” Babcock said. “There’s a fairly sizeable disparity in economic levels across the spectrum of employment at Williams. The College attempts to provide competitive compensation and benefits based on the role each employee plays, but our society places more of a premium on some services than others.”

Other issues surround different factors that relate to class, particularly that of race and ethnicity. “People have said to me that it’s a class issue rather than a racial one, but those two are so closely tied to each other that in many instances it’s hard to separate them,” Cruz said.

Nevertheless, significant strides have been taken in broadening the College’s outlook, even in the last few decades. Lynda Bundtzen, professor of English, noted that when she began teaching at the College when the first class of first-year women matriculated in 1972, her “perception was that everyone here had come from a middle-class family or better; that many of my students, who at the time were mostly men, were children of alums; and that for them a Williams College education was not a privilege, but a right.” Bundtzen believes that progress has been achieved since. “I think this has changed and that there is a much greater diversity of class backgrounds,” she said. “Certainly the faculty is more diverse.”

Student experiences

When the Record spoke to a number of students about their individual experiences with class on campus, most agreed that socioeconomic status is not obtrusive in the College’s rural, self-contained campus. However, many said that it is visible in “little things”: vacation plans, work study, purchasing textbooks, possessions in dorm rooms and choices about eating out at restaurants. “You’re not always conscious of it,” said Mike Nelson ’12. “But something’ll happen and you’ll think: This person has a lot more money than I do.”

Joshua Wilson ’11 echoed Nelson’s sentiment. “It’s not a big issue in the sense that people around me are insensitive or necessarily do anything that makes me uncomfortable,” he said. “But it becomes harder for me to relate to people or to fit in as well because I don’t have the same experiences, and sometimes there’s a tendency to compare myself to what other people have and feel less fortunate.”

Many students that the Record interviewed lauded the College’s need-blind admissions and generous financial aid policies. “I don’t think I’d be at this school or have as a nice situation here without their money,” Jen Oswald ’11 said. “The College does a good job of making Williams available to people from a wide range of backgrounds.”

Some students expressed appreciation for this socioeconomic diversity. “I’m friends with a lot of international students who could never have come here without the aid they’re receiving, and I think they bring so much to Williams, which is very different from other schools,” Inez Tan ’12 said. “My friendships with them have been among the best of my experiences here at Williams, and I hope that doesn’t change.”

In light of this diversity, students underscored the need for greater support in understanding financial aid packages, whether in assistance with filling in forms or more attention to scheduling financial aid information sessions, which can conflict with entry activities during First Days.

Oswald also noted that the College’s frequent publicizing of its efforts to reach out to historically underrepresented demographics through programs like QuestBridge could inadvertently conflate perceptions about race with perceptions about class. “Whether it is intended or not, those things do tend to get lumped together.”

Apart from race, students observed that socioeconomic stereotypes are associated with assumptions about nationality, with international students generalized into a binary of extreme wealth and extreme poverty; sports, with athletes in sports such as squash, golf or tennis perceived as very well off; work study jobs; and certain brands or styles of clothing.

Some also noted that socioeconomic categorizations often paint broad, counterproductive strokes. “I went to school with some of the wealthiest people in the country, but I’ve seen my parents struggle financially, and although I’m not on financial aid, I’ve tried applying every year,” Virginia Cumberbatch ’10 said.

Oswald shared a similar thematic perspective but his experience came from the other side of the issue: “I’ve always thought of myself as pretty firmly middle class, although the College would consider us in a lower class bracket based on the amount of money we have, which changed right before I got to college.”

Apart from broadening understandings of socioeconomic diversity, students discussed the need to make substantive changes to the internal structure of the College. “Have we opened up the gates? Yes. But has the institution changed fundamentally? No,” said Cumberbatch, who recently collaborated with two other students on a Winter Study 99 project that examined the history of women of color in the first few classes of women at the College. “The College hasn’t done enough to reaffirm that students from all backgrounds belong here.”

According to Cumberbatch, who is co-chair of Student Athlete Advisory Committee, coaches have “done a good job” to diversify athletic teams in many ways, but expenditures such as spring break training trips can be prohibitive. “The fact that some people can’t train because they can’t afford it is absurd,” she said.

In addition, Blake Schultz ’10, co-captain of men’s basketball, underscored the need for sensitivity in microcommunities like entries and teams. “We avoid things that cost too much when we organize events outside of practice,” he said. “We’ve done a $5 ropes course, and gone bowling. We try to be aware.”

Schultz noted that conversations such as those at Claiming Williams can help develop such awareness of class diversity. “For example, the screening of The Philosopher Kings could have been a really good segue into discussion on class, if that focus had been added.”

However, opinion was divided about how constructive discussion about socioeconomic differences could be. “I don’t think more discussion of class on campus is necessary,” Tan said. “I like that it’s a very low-key topic on campus. I don’t talk too much about my background because I don’t just want to be defined that way.”

Others expressed the need for caution in framing conversations about class. “We absolutely need more discussion about class. But I don’t speak for all first-generation Jamaican Americans who are black and who are of lower economic status,” Nelson said, noting also that many do not respond well to the “large wholesale discussions about these sorts of social issues so far.” “I think more discussions one-to-one and in small classroom settings would help us examine our own assumptions and why we think the way we do and what we hold as important,” he said.

Wilson expressed a similar preference for conversations on a smaller scale. “As far as Claiming Williams and the like go, as long as we’re sharing experiences and trying to understand each other, that’s far better than trying to pretend it doesn’t exist,” he said.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *