The money taboo

Group dinners and split checks. Athletic team dues. Skiing at Jiminy. Concerts and party buses. Spring break trips. Entry parties. Outdoor ‘darties.’ Alcohol. Cars. Hilton Head.

These things all share a common denominator: They are all prominent components of social life at Williams, and they all cost money.

In many ways, financial means can shape the experience of a Williams student. Bizarrely, however, there is an alarmingly prevalent, yet largely unspoken, taboo against discussing individual or family financial resources – be they extensive or restrictive – at our school. The result is a culture in which friends often don’t feel comfortable telling friends they can’t afford the trip to New York, the dinner at the Pub or the co-payment on a Patagonia team fleece.

At a college that constantly strives to cultivate conversation about what makes students unique, from Storytime to Claiming Williams, it’s remarkable that socioeconomic stratification within the student body receives so little attention and resource devotion, particularly considering that this is one of the most tangible ways in which a student’s background can affect his or her college experience.

Perhaps socioeconomic diversity is so frequently glazed over at Williams because it so rarely, if ever, manifests into scenarios of targeted discrimination. People are free to participate or not participate in virtually any activity requiring payment at Williams, and I have rarely heard of an instance when a request for assistance from a peer or leader was ignored. But the resulting ambivalence toward actively educating our community about socioeconomic diversity truly misses the point: For those with financial hardship, requesting assistance or accommodation is the hardest part.

Williams students – forgive the generalization – struggle to admit to being anything less than self-sufficient. As a result, students consistently stretch themselves beyond their financial means just to avoid the conversation of, “Why not?” It takes remarkable self-assuredness to admit even to your closest friends or teammates that you can’t pay for something. So to assume that all students have the courage to talk about money – particularly when the subject isn’t addressed in First Days, entries, all-campus e-mails or anywhere in between – is ludicrous.

I acknowledge that the College has taken steps in my time at Williams toward opening a forum on socioeconomic status. For example, last spring, the Office of Financial Aid held a series of successful student group meetings requesting feedback on the efficacy of the College’s financial aid program. However, there remains little targeted action by administration to educate students on how to sensitively treat issues of finances. Considering that every single student identifies with one socioeconomic status or another, it seems like a pretty important amendment to the discussion list.

Growing up in Canada, I was often told that there is no wealth like American wealth. I’ve glimpsed the truth of this at Williams, but I don’t consider our students at all ostentatious with their money. This financial modesty is often refreshing, but the recalcitrance to discuss wealth works both ways. Somebody might be stretching their means to contribute to your party’s alcohol fund, but unless you show them you understand, the odds that they will admit to it are slim. Many students’ families don’t withhold funds from their bank accounts to teach them independence – they simply have no money to give. It is so easy to be oblivious to that kind of reality in our little bubble. So if you take nothing else from this piece, take this: Please be cognizant of the spectrum of financial situations at our school. Before you prod a friend about why she can’t go out to dinner on Saturday, before you ask someone why he’s entering the financial industry when he hated his summer internship, consider that he or she might be too ashamed to tell you the real answer. Admitting to financial hardship isn’t easy. And until socioeconomic awareness increases at Williams, it won’t get any easier.

Rachel MacLean ’14 is a political economy and Chinese double major from Fall River, Nova Scotia. She lives in Spencer.


  • Cindy Hill

    Rachel — Just wanted you to know that I’m using this article this week in the Socio-Economic Status module of my Community College of Vermont course on Intercultural Communication. Thanks for such a fine piece of writing.

    • Rachel MacLean

      Hi Cindy,
      I’m extremely flattered. Thank you so much for letting me know. I hope the article was able to prompt fruitful discussion about an issue that undoubtedly exists at many colleges across this country and others. I’d love to hear more about how the class went – if you see this, please feel free to email me at