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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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Princeton University sociology Professor Thomas J. Espenshade studied the effect of economic disparities on the college experiences of more than 9,000 students who applied to, enrolled in, and graduated from 10 selective colleges between the early-1980s and late-1990s. His findings—co-authored with Alexandria Walton Radford, associate director of postsecondary education at MPR Associates, Inc., in Washington, D.C., and published in the aptly titled book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite Colleges—suggested that students from different racial and class backgrounds “do not mix as much as one might expect.”

The lack of the social interactions isn’t the "problem," but rather a symptom and reflection of the divergent experiences students are likely to have on campus. As Espenshade explained to me in an interview, less-affluent students often walk on campus feeling out of place, harboring attitudes that hamper their early ease and adjustment to college life. Such feelings aren’t shared by their wealthier classmates, he said.

What’s more, often the poorer students are made to feel unwelcome or reminded of their “outsider status” with comments about their need to work or dependence on financial aid. “Financial aid is where the class distinctions become apparent,” Espenshade said. “The top schools are trying to make financial aid available and to make it more practical for [less wealthy] students to attend. But that aid has to be invisible to ensure that it’s not the dividing line once the student arrives for class.”

In recent decades (and as the backlash to affirmative action programs' displaced race-based efforts to attract nontraditional students to campus) college administrators and admissions officers have shifted focus toward redefining what a diverse student body looks like. Increasingly, class-based diversity is the more coveted form of campus diversity, and race-based admissions is passé.

“I think [admissions officers] are motivated by the same concerns regarding social class diversity as they were with racial diversity,” Espenshade said. “They see themselves as creating opportunity for groups outside the mainstream.”

Indeed, one of the unintended and unforeseen consequences of the brief era of affirmative-action programs was that an ever-expanding group of well-prepared and often academically gifted middle-class black students were admitted to elite college campuses. Once on campus, however, these students found themselves viewed as separate and unequal to their even-better-prepared and decidedly more affluent white classmates.

Espenshade said race, class, and gender distinctions have long been a part of the DNA on college campuses. The civil rights movement of the late-1950s and early-1960s pushed some schools to make aggressive efforts to bring black students on campus, but it didn’t change the way they chose to interact once they arrived. The same seems to be true with class-based differences, he said.

Yet considering a student’s class upbringing doesn’t touch the same chords that considering race once did. “I think there’s awareness [among college admissions officers] that these are two different things,” Espenshade said. “One [class] is not just a proxy or coded language for the other [race].”

For the most part, few people—on campus or across the wider land—want to acknowledge that class matters or is determinative to future success. Denial that class truly existed separated the Founding Fathers’ lofty ideals from the Everyman (and Everywoman) in the society. For the New World’s experiment in representative democracy to take root, let alone succeed, every citizen had to believe that his or her opportunity in life was equal to a neighbor’s, not granted by a monarch or ordained by clergy.

That’s where education entered the picture, enshrined as the great leveler of our society. In order to be self-governing, a population had to be educated well enough to keep tabs on its government, to track how it spent taxes, and to hold accountable anyone who would corrupt the system. Knowledge was the key—greater quantities of education opened more rooms to those who might have been locked out.

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