In the minds of many, the ideas of private education and wealth are inseparable: for the majority of lower- and lower-middle-class Americans, private education is out of the question. In recent years, private colleges have been striving to achieve socioeconomic diversity by employing need-blind admissions and meeting up to 100 percent of demonstrated need. As was highlighted in a previous issue of The Miscellany News, Vassar is very proud of its distinction as the most economically diverse top college in the U.S.—but this title indeed implies a lot that has yet to be attained (“VC tops list of economically diverse elite colleges,” 9.18.14). After completing my first month at Vassar, I can attest that it is still difficult to separate wealth and private education in my own mind, a sentiment which some of my fellow “lower socioeconomic status” peers share with some degree of discomfort.
After spending 18 years in a place where struggling financially is the norm, one becomes accustomed to sharing these issues with their peers—they serve as common ground. Coming to Vassar provides quite the culture shock for such students: Suddenly, money problems are not on everyone’s mind, and students may become extremely conscious of their socioeconomic standing, possibly for the first time in their life.
Hearing people call items one considers exorbitantly priced “affordable” is jarring indeed, as is conversation about regular exotic vacations with someone who has never left the country. Such factors can be alienating, as it is easy to feel uncomfortable and out-of-place in these conversations if one cannot contribute. In my experience, I have found myself feeling uncultured in these situations—I’ve never spent a month touring Europe, had a summer home or received special access at an event thanks to parents’ connections. I have been met with odd looks when talking about the lack of resources at my high school and in my hometown, and how impressed I am with what we have here at Vassar.
When these conversations arise, I become self-conscious and question my ability to fit in within these types of social settings. Am I at a disadvantage because I have never been able to immerse myself in my chosen foreign language by going abroad? Should I be embarrassed that I have no idea what the prep schools whose names I hear tossed around are? Why do I feel ashamed that I had a job back home not because my parents wanted to instill a work ethic in me but because I actually needed to in order to support myself (and at times, my family)? At Vassar, I have found it difficult so far to find and connect with people to discuss these feelings with and to feel validated in these concerns, and I have learned that I am not the only one with these thoughts and feelings at this privileged institution.
If Vassar wishes to continue to promote itself as such a diverse institution, then it must extend these efforts beyond monetary endowments. While it is true that lower-income students would not be here without Vassar’s generous aid, the College must realize that their being here brings a unique set of challenges that the College should help them face in order to make this an enjoyable experience for all Vassar students.
Surely, not all incoming freshman from these backgrounds are able to attend the Transitions program for various reasons; I was unable to and felt as though similar programming should have been offered throughout orientation. A freshman’s inability to come to campus earlier should not hinder them from gaining extra support and guidance during this drastic shift in environments. Lectures and seminars about Vassar’s available resources and how to adjust to Vassar’s academic setting should be given throughout orientation, perhaps in a series. These programs would enable students to meet others to whom they can relate on these levels and provide an open forum for them to ask questions of the right people who can quell their worries and offer advice for the future. This would, in turn, make students more confident going forward and feel less apprehensive in joining the community here.
I also noticed that, during Freshman Families Weekend this past week at Vassar College, there was programming geared towards certain disciplines and areas of study and several events showcasing Vassar’s art, music and sports offerings, but there was no outlet for families to address their concerns regarding socioeconomic background—which is striking, since the esteemed ranking was released and touted across Vassar’s social media just a week before. In years to come, the College should seriously consider offering programming for families from such backgrounds.
These parents and guardians who did not attend college themselves likely feel afraid that their child will feel overwhelmed, homesick or lonely and, more so, worried that they will not know how to support their child in these situations, since they cannot directly relate to this experience.
Also, they may need additional guidance or clarification regarding financial aid and how it can change, how studying abroad works with financial aid and what their packages will and will not cover both now and in the future. For families navigating college for the first time, this experience presents many nervous feelings and brings up a surge of questions that they may not know who to ask. Vassar needs to be more supportive of these families and recognize that their experience is vastly different from those of families for whom college is an anticipated part of life rather than a dream or an unlikely option.
While Vassar will continue to strive for diversity of all types, it is difficult to envision its becoming a place where people of all classes will be perfectly represented, especially as income disparity increases in the U.S. and around the world. However, by taking measures to ensure that these students and their families feel included and accommodated, the College can make greater strides in closing the socioeconomic gap on campus.
By making this conscious effort, Vassar can portray itself as an accepting place for students of low socioeconomic status via current students’ and their families’ recommendations rather than just numbers in charts and statistics from surveys sent around on a less than yearly basis. If Vassar achieves a reputation of being a school that is markedly inclusive, word will spread through mediums to which these students actually pay attention and have access, and will therefore attract greater numbers from backgrounds or areas that currently have no knowledge of Vassar’s existence, let alone its accessibility to students and families from all classes.
—Sophia Burns ’18 is currently undeclared