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Why Are All the Rich Kids Sitting Together on Campus?

Still think of college as the great equalizer? Think again. Today, income differences are dividing college campuses like never before.
 
 
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Jourdan Shepard, a student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, Georgia, created a lively blogosphere debate with his online post decrying elitism and “classism” at his historically black and male college. His insights speak volumes about the changing nature of student divisions on college campuses, from racial divides to income divides—though of course it isn’t as tidy a division since we’re speaking, after all, about American college campuses.

“Every August, a new freshman class walks through the gates of the school and into the campus gymnasium only to have their older brothers try to transform them into Black elitists,” Shepard wrote late in 2011 as the Morehouse correspondent for newsone.com, an online aggregator of news targeted at black Americans. “Yes, Morehouse does tell their freshmen what is expected, but the bravado has seemed to overshadow the greater good. This is a problem.”

What drew Shepard’s ire is the sense of elitism and entitlement among a certain group of students strutting across his campus green. According to a growing body of scholarly literature, class stratification on college campuses may well be an immutable barrier that increasingly divides affluent students from their less well-off classmates, threatening the long-cherished ideal that a college education is the great equalizer of society.

Even as college campuses herald their efforts to lower racial barriers—especially at the most elite, predominantly white colleges—some observers note that economic disparities among college students is creating a situation where affluent students have one experience and poor students have an entirely different one. As Shepard noted, income disparities among students undermine the purpose of a college degree, which he defines as a tool “to develop the individual and help the community, rather than embracing a superficial identity that degrades one another.”

Several academics have looked at what Shepard called “a problem,” and their findings are far from definitive. The early scholarship—from academics such as University of Michigan economists Martha Bailey and Susan Dynarski and education policy experts such as Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute—suggests, however, that class distinction on college campuses deserves greater attention if institutions of higher learning want to improve the educational experience for poorer students.

As Rothstein makes clear, there are subtle differences in household wealth that are likely to be important markers of achievement. “But these are usually overlooked because most analysts focus only on annual family income to indicated disadvantage,” he wrote in a 2006 article for the National Association of Independent Schools. “This makes it hard to understand why black students, on average, score lower than whites whose family incomes are the same. … but children can have similar family incomes but be of different economic classes,” he stressed. “For low income families, blacks are likely to have been poor for longer than whites with similar income in any year.”

To be sure, hardly anyone seriously quarrels with the abundant facts demonstrating that students from poor and economically disadvantaged homes perform worse on average in school than classmates from affluent communities. Notably the highly regarded 1966 " Equality of Educational Opportunity Study"—also known as the Coleman Report after the study’s lead investigator, James Coleman—made clear that student background and socioeconomic status are more important in determining educational outcomes than measurable differences in school funding.

More recently, research by Stanford University Associate Professor Sean F. Reardon traces the student achievement gap between wealthy and poor children over the past half-century, finding that the gap is greater than between black and white schoolchildren. Of course, if those gaps aren’t narrowing, then it’s reasonable to assume that economic disparities—and the gulf of academic outcomes—are evident on the college campus. Indeed this is the case, with troubling outcomes.

 
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