Over the past decade and a half, I’ve given talks on dozens of college campuses about the need to increase socioeconomic diversity, but never before had I witnessed what I observed during a recent speech at Middlebury College.
Before introducing me, students from the sponsoring organization, Money at Midd, began the forum by publicly announcing their names and how much they and their families paid each year in tuition and fees. The first student, Samuel Koplinka-Loehr, said that his family paid about $18,000, and that he added $3,000 from his job. He passed the microphone to the next student, who said his family paid the full $56,000 comprehensive fee. A young woman said that her family could not afford to pay anything, but that she worked to pay $1,200 toward college costs.
I was dumbstruck, then elated, by the frank nature of the exchange. At Middlebury—and on campuses throughout the country—class is coming out of the closet.
Long hidden from view, economic status is emerging from the shadows, as once-taboo discussions are taking shape. The growing economic divide in America, and on American campuses, has given rise to new student organizations, and new dialogues, focused on raising awareness of class issues—and proposing solutions. With the U.S. Supreme Court likely to curtail the consideration of race in college admissions this year, the role of economic disadvantage as a basis for preferences could further raise the salience of class.
This interest represents a return to an earlier era. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, class concerns animated Marxists on campus and New Deal politicians in the public sphere. Both groups papered over important dimensions of race and gender to focus on the nation’s economic divide. Programs like Federal Housing Administration-guaranteed loans and the GI Bill provided crucial opportunities for upward mobility to some working-class families and students.
Colleges, meanwhile, began using the SAT to identify talented working-class candidates for admission. But FHA loans, the GI Bill, and the SAT still left many African-Americans, Latinos, and women out in the cold.