“There is a stigma associated with socioeconomic background at Vassar, and I’d like for this to be a safe space to be able to open up that discussion,” President of Students’ Class Issues Alliance (SCIA), Leela Stalzer ‘17 said. The statement was met with silence. While there are classes in sociology offered to make people aware of the dynamic between class and class background, the discussion falls short when it comes to the specifics of that dynamic on campus. SCIA organized CLA$$AR: A Student-Led Workshop on Socioeconomic Identity at Vassar on April 25 to address socioeconomic disparities and the tensions they produce at Vassar.
The event, Stalzer explained, was a way to get the student body more involved in the conversation regarding the range of backgrounds that students at Vassar come from. “There have been workshops that SCIA has led before, but this was the first student-led,” Stalzer said. “The workshop in the fall went well, but it focused more on general issues. It was only towards the end that it went more into Vassar-specific issues, which is why I thought there was a need for this workshop today,” she went on to say.
While Vassar is counted as the most socioeconomically diverse school in America, students feel pressure to shed those backgrounds upon entering the school. Just a few weeks ago, Vassar was rewarded for its diversity with the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for Supporting High-Performing Low-Incomme Students. Founded this year, this scholarship grants a no-strings-attached sum of one million dollars as an award for colleges with the highest number of low-income students.
As the recipient of the inaugural reward, Vassar was featured in The New York Times which announced, “Among colleges with a four-year graduation rate of at least 75 percent, none has done more than Vassar to enroll low-income students and give them large scholarships, according to an Upshot analysis last year that Cooke Foundation officials said influenced their decision.” When Stalzer asked the group, “Do you think Vassar deserves this scholarship?” the overwhelming response was only if the money is put towards helping those low-income students continue to succeed once they arrive on campus.
Michael Fracentese ’16 mentioned that the Transitions program, a program offered to alleviate students’ “culture shock” coming from lower-class backgrounds, is only available to 20 or 30 incoming freshmen. Along with this more social supplement, 24 percent of students qualify for the Pell Grant. The Pell Grant is awarded to students who usually come from families who make less than 50,000 dollars a year. In addition, Transitions is not consistent throughout the year. The New York Times article mentioned that the College’s president was planning to put the money toward Transistions. The article said, “Catharine Hill, Vassar’s president, told me that the college would use some of the prize money to expand an orientation program that has shown early promise in helping students adjust to Vassar.”
Transitions wasn’t the only concern that students attending the workshop brought up. The difficulty for students to connect with their peers on every level may stem from the administration. One student mentioned that the administration at Vassar keeps very specialized financial portfolios on parents. On Parents’ Weekend, then, parents with a higher income who have more money that they have donated, or have the potential to donate, are given a different program of activities at Vassar than those who are less able to donate.
“Those parents got a behind-the-scenes tour of the new science building,” she said. In visiting Vassar, a couple of students mentioned that their parents wanted to know how to dress like the “typical” Vassar parents. Vassar may tout a certain amount of diversity, but it mainly caters towards the twenty percent of the school that pays full tuition, she noted.
For her workstudy, job this student works as a phone-a-thon worker and she explained, “Vassar creates personalized ‘suggested donation’ amounts. I think the idea is so ridiculous that I don’t usually ask.” Not only is she being put in the uncomfortable position of asking current students’ parents for more money, but she is in a position to be attacked for daring to ask for a specific amount. She went on to say, “It also depends on where the money is coming from. Maybe the student has a guardian situation where one parent refuses to pay, but that’s where the money would come from? Vassar doesn’t take those things into consideration.”
These issues extend beyond the reaches of Vassar’s campus. Fracentese commented, “The Salvation Army near Vassar doesn’t appreciate when the rich kids from Vassar come in to fulfill the latest fashion.” Where Salvation Armies are a necessity for some members of the community, Vassar students trivialize the need for them by using up resources when they have enough money to buy clothing at more expensive stores. When it comes to being a college student, however, finances are always an issue. A student at the workshop brought up the idea of merely being fiscally responsible by doing her shopping at the Salvation Army instead of the mall.
“There is always the issue of fashion,” Fracentese agreed. “If a ‘rich’ Vassar student buys the last pair of nice jeans at the Salvation Army, whose to say I can’t just buy the ripped jeans? Clothing shouldn’t be a class indicator.”
The student went on to say, “I’ve heard of more wealthy students trying to dress down for that reason.”
Whether students have the option to ask their parents for money or not, opting out of going out to eat or heading to the mall to save money is always an excuse. For bigger issues: even going to college in the first place, finding an unpaid internship in the summer, going abroad, the politics of class tend to get in the way. The SCIA student-led workshop was meant to open people’s eyes about these differences, and how to begin fixing them on Vassar’s campus.
Stalzer said, “There were so many topics that we weren’t able to get to. I think we were able to accomplish what we set out to do, though.”