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Let's (not) talk about class

Students attempt to bring socioeconomic status and underlying tensions out of the shadows

Part three of a four-part series

When Associate Professor of Anthropology Dan Smith asked students in his class ANTH 0300: "Culture and Health" to indicate if they thought they were lower-class, very few students raised their hands. The same happened when he asked if students considered themselves upper-class. But when he asked students if they thought they were middle-class, nearly all the roughly 200 students shot their hands into the air.

"Talking about class, even raising the notion we're anything but middle-class, is considered very socially unacceptable," said Takeru Nagayoshi '14. 

"I feel like everyone says they're middle-of-the-road," said Ben Peipert '13. 

When President Ruth Simmons took office in 2001, she vowed to make financial aid a focus of her presidency. During her tenure, Simmons created a need-blind admission policy and championed the Plan for Academic Enrichment, a road map for the University's advancement that included increased investment in financial aid. 

But Simmons' work to make admission need-blind for domestic first-years and recent efforts by groups such as Brown for Financial Aid have not cracked the shell surrounding discussion of socioeconomic status on campus. Students said they experience a tension between the desire to act middle-class and the effects their financial realities have on conversations, relationships and demographics. At an institution one student deemed an "emblem of privilege," class disparities present a social minefield Brunonians must navigate when making friends, finding love and engaging in academic and extracurricular life.

Dissecting demographics

Of the nearly 60 students The Herald interviewed, the majority agreed affluence is alive and well on Brown's campus. 

"It's easy to think that you're not that well-off when you're at a place like this compared to some other people," said Alex Fleming '12. "But I think it's very, very rare that you have a student at an Ivy League university that isn't pretty comfortable financially." 

Despite financial aid programs designed to make the University affordable to lower-income applicants, many students pointed to various selection biases that influence access to the University. 

"The least academically-talented students in the upper income quartile go to college at the same rates as the most academically-talented students in the lowest income quartile, and students from the lowest income quartile have been underrepresented at Brown," Dean of Admission Jim Miller '73 previously wrote The Herald.

To combat inherent inequality, the University has embraced programs such as the Questbridge consortium, which helps the Admission Office recruit "low-income, primarily first-generation, college-bound students," Miller wrote. 

Even so, private schools are frequently billed as an avenue to the Ivy League. Many students were accepted to the University because they received a private high school education, often bankrolled by family wealth, or have a parent who attended Brown, which also suggests a more privileged upbringing, said Tyler Rice '14, who attended a private high school in the Virgin Islands.  

This bias can lead to tension when students arrive at Brown. "When it comes to students from these lower economic backgrounds, they're just not as prepared as students from these more prestigious high schools. I don't blame Brown at all," said Bryan Payton '15, a Detroit public high school graduate.

Students who did not attend private schools can feel disadvantaged. Robert Bentlyewski '13 said he felt underprepared when he first arrived at the University. "I'd never been graded alongside someone who went to a $20,000-a-year private school who has been trained to be good at academics," he said. 

Bentlyewski also pointed to the SAT as an unfair entry barrier, calling it more a test of preparation than of ability. "My score was considered great at my school and one of the lowest that I've heard here," he said, adding that he did not have access to SAT tutoring or classes. 

Quiet on the green 

Despite the perceived ubiquity of wealth, students offered mixed opinions about whether peers' socioeconomic statuses are truly visible.

Chris Moynihan '14, whose father is the chief executive officer of a leading U.S. bank and a Corporation trustee, said his upbringing in an monied Massachusetts town makes it difficult not to read into the material indicators of status. "It's hard not to come from a society like that and restrain those judgments," he said. 

"It's not like people are walking around in sneakers, even guys," said Katharine Grimes '14. 

Nestor Noyola '14, who said he identifies as lower-class, sees Bear Bucks account balances with an average in the hundreds and up to $5,000 at his job behind the counter at the Campus Market. "It shocks me a little," he said. "It's a lot of money ... to just spend on food and snacks."

Ryan Hoskins '12.5 said though he hears about students who come from particularly wealthy backgrounds, he does not think status is obvious.

People can also act in a way that does not reflect their financial realities, Rice said. Regardless of how much money a student has, "if you're the alpha male, you'll get up to the bar and act like big moneybags," he said.

Most students agreed that conversation surrounding socioeconomic class is uncomfortable, especially when brought up with people outside their own statuses. 

"When you hear statements like, 'Some of us actually have to pay for our education, Bryan,' you think, are you upset because your parents can afford to have a stable life and pay for a Brown education?" said Payton, who receives financial aid. "I find myself sometimes questioning this environment where people of so much privilege can interact on this level."

Noyola said he has noticed students from lower socioeconomic strata coding their language. "I was just talking to a girl about her plans about spring break, and she just said, 'Oh, you know, I can't do that - I'm not like other students.' She wasn't very explicit, but she got the point across," he said. 

Grimes cited job opportunities as another subject students sidestep in conversation. "I've never heard anyone say they couldn't do an
unpaid internship - I've heard them say they want a paid internship," Grimes said. Whether a person can afford to complete an unpaid internship or needs to earn money over the summer is one way to infer something about a peer's status, she said.

Yancy Rodriguez '14 said he is more open about his financial situation when speaking with students who are also on financial aid. 

Students who perceive themselves as less wealthy are very hesitant to talk about it, said Alexander Mechanick '15. "They just want to be like everyone else," he said.

But some students perceive others as bragging about their financial aid, as if receiving aid is associated with an academic talent. "It's odd how some people I hear almost take pride in the amount of aid that they get," Bentlyewski said, describing the attitude as "My parents don't make much money ­- I'm here because of me." 

While some students who do not rely on financial aid said they share their status openly, others said they try to keep quiet about their wealth. 

"It's never something I would hide," said Libby Stein '15, who does not receive financial aid. "If somebody asked me, I would tell them in a heartbeat."

But Stephanie Harris '14 said she thinks privilege comes with discomfort. Some students with more wealth can be made to feel bad for what they have, she said. "They don't want to come off as sounding like they're spoiled or don't understand having to struggle through life."

"People who are on the wealthier end don't want to believe they're better-off," Mechanick said.

Fleming said he has seen students treat their wealth in both extremes. Some students are incredibly wealthy and want to be seen as upper-class citizens, he said, while others try to separate themselves from the perception of wealth by pointing out others who are wealthier.

Who's at the table

A recent Herald poll revealed the student population is split on whether they believe their friends are of their same socioeconomic status. Students who do not receive aid are more likely to say their friend groups include people of different statuses, according to the poll.

"I probably hang out with kids whose parents it might take them 30 years to make what my dad would make in two. But it doesn't affect my relationship with them at all," said Hoskins, who does not receive financial aid. 

The international community is frequently considered to be wealthier due to the University's need-aware admission policy for internationals, said Darien Rosa '15. "In terms of socioeconomics, they're just on a different plane than everyone else, and they end up staying together."

But what a person can afford to participate in affects their social circle, said Noyola, who receives financial aid. "Because we end up staying on campus, we end up eating on campus, so we end up spending more time together," he said. 

"If I'm a (Resumed Undergraduate Education) student, chances are I'm on financial aid, and if I'm a veteran, chances are I'm on financial aid," said David Salsone '12.5, a veteran and a RUE student. "Those are the groups that are going to stick together," he said. 

Students can feel left out or hard-pressed to participate in the activities that seem easily affordable to friends. 

Moore said her friends sometimes choose to go out to restaurants out of her price range. While they often choose another place so she can join, sometimes "they'll say 'Okay, well we're still gonna go anyway and you're just gonna miss out,'" she said. 

"On the weekends my friends and I like to go out to eat, and sometimes people are more reticent and like, 'Oh, I have a meal plan - why would I go out and spend money?'" Stein said.

Meal plans are financial burdens to some. Vanessa Flores-Maldonado '14, a member of the women's rugby team, had to switch down to Flex 330 from Flex 460 because the price was too high and said she is not satisfied with the number of credits and points the new plan allots her. "Meal plan and I are not best friends right now," she said.

"Sometimes I feel a little bit cheated," Rosa said. "Like I could have gotten more food for the same amount of money somewhere else."

For most, meal plan is the most cost-effective. "I use the Ratty for all it's worth whenever I can," Bentlyewski said.

Living and loving 

Freshman year includes a lot of experiences that highlight socioeconomic status, said Clay Thibodeaux, a Meiklejohn and co-founder of Social Classmates, a semester-long workshop that aims to provide a safe space for students to discuss class. When first-year advisers take their groups to the traditional Faculty Club lunch, social class becomes apparent, he said. "You can tell who's really comfortable with eating out of other people's paycheck, and people who use the different forks," he said. 

Freshman move-in is a time when there is a lot of consciousness around socioeconomic status because of the types of things people are bringing into their rooms, said Margaret Klawunn, vice president for campus life and student services. "It's one of the times when you're really conscious of whether you've entered a world that feels immediately comfortable or one you're going to have to figure out your place in," she said.

When Kishan Patel '15 arrived on campus in the fall, his roommate had already moved a sofa, a plasma TV, a video game console and an air-conditioning unit into their double. Socioeconomic status is "assumed, based on what people bring," he said. 

Even after freshman year, socioeconomic status can play an uncomfortable role in housing. 

Noyola said he selected quiet housing to avoid the risk of being placed in on-campus housing with the $1,200 apartment fee in summer assignment. "Most of my friends chose quiet housing with me for the same reason," he said.

But some students are left out of living with their friends when only some members of a housing group can afford to pay the apartment fee. Hannah Jones '14 went into the lottery with four friends who all wanted to live in a suite, and the plan was for Jones to find a single away from the group. Her socioeconomic status became more noticeable during the process, she said
. "I don't know if my friends are indicative of Brown, but they're all like, '$1,200? Sure, that's fine - I spent that over spring break,'" she said.

The Office of Residential Life only encounters a few requests for aid in paying the suite fee each year, and these are handled on a case-by-case basis, said Richard Bova, senior associate dean of residential and dining services.

Though many students said they have friends who do not share their status, most said they think people tend to date within their social class. 

Moynihan said dating might be the biggest factor he perceives in how socioeconomic status affects relationships at Brown, adding that he typically dates within his socioeconomic class.

Jones is in a relationship with someone of a socioeconomic status higher than hers. "I'm kind of a free spirit hippie, and he's like the one percent," she said. Her boyfriend often ends up paying for things she wishes she could pay for herself, which makes her uncomfortable, she said. "Sometimes I wish I was dating someone that's more on my level," she added.

Harris, a Minority Peer Counselor, proposed "(S)he's Out of My League," a workshop on social class and dating at Brown. Around 20 students attended the workshop in February, she said, adding that there were few participants who identified as wealthy. Most people who had dated outside their socioeconomic class stated it had been a struggle to do so, she said, citing one student's comment about the difficulty navigating paying for things in his same-sex relationships. 

"(S)he's Out of My League" was just one of an increasing number of programs focusing on how students deal with issues surrounding socioeconomic diversity. The workshop Social Classmates has seen 51 total participants over four semesters, Thibodeaux said. The Third World Transition Program, First Generation College Students group and MPC events also provide opportunities for students to engage with these issues. 


When financial aid and scholarships are not enough to fund tuition, or when students want extra pocket money for personal spending, many seek on-campus employment. Roughly 1,500 students work jobs on campus, said James Tilton, director of financial aid, basing his statistic on the number of students who receive a paycheck through the Office of Student Employment each month. 

"People with lower socioeconomic status will just take any job, but other people are more picky," said Patricia Rojas '15, who works for Brown University Dining Services to supplement her financial aid package.

"There might be a perception that people join Dining Services because they need money, and it's not something they really want to do," said Anthony Calcagni '13, BuDS general manager. BuDS currently employs 333 students, he said, adding that most workers continue working for BuDS from semester to semester. 

But not all students can find the time for jobs. "I just figured I'd bite the $6,000 bullet for now and figure it out down the road," said Bentlyewski, who relies heavily on loans for his living expenses. 

Pressure to reconcile academics and extracurricular responsibilities with looming financial anxieties can take a serious toll on student life for those who cannot afford not to work. 

"Whenever I do take on volunteer opportunities, I'm constantly cognizant of the fact that I could use this time to be making money to help support myself or raising money to help myself in future years when I need it," said Destin Sisemore '15. He said his financial situation does not allow him to participate in all the extracurriculars he would like to and that he has to think about which activities he will eventually need to drop in favor of making money. 

Benjamins and brotherhood

Greek life often comes up in conversations about wealth and how students spend their time. Membership in Greek organizations totals around 400 students, according to the Office of Residential Life's website, which is less than 10 percent of the undergraduate population. The University is home to six all-male fraternities, two all-female sororities and two co-ed fraternities. 

Many students pointed to fraternities, historically bastions of white male privilege, as comprising wealthier students. 

Students who paid full tuition for their Brown education might be more willing to spend their time in a fraternity, contributing to Greek life's reputation for including mostly wealthy students, said Moynihan, who is a member of Delta Tau. 

"I think the lurking variable there though is that it's more likely that ... if you worked your way in here and were on a financial aid package, then maybe you'd be advised against going into the frats," Moynihan said. 

Rahil Rojiani '13, president of Phi Kappa Psi, said he thinks most fraternities at Brown can be described as "pretty upper-class, heterosexual, tend to be pretty privileged males," basing his reasoning on the alcohol budgets and membership dues the brothers in other fraternities pay. In contrast, he said most of his brothers in Phi Psi come from "pretty underprivileged, marginalized backgrounds." 

Dues, as an institutionalized expenditure required of members, may contribute to perceptions of wealth, said a Sigma Chi brother who asked to remain anonymous because he did not wish to speak for the fraternity. He drew the comparison between dues and the amount students outside fraternities spend on social activities anyway, but he added that not everyone spends an amount comparable to dues demanded by Greek organizations. 

"You want everyone to pay your dues. Otherwise you can't party and have a good time and buy alcohol and fund events," Moynihan said. "But at the same time, you can't just go around calling people saying, 'You should pay, you need to pay, you need to pay.' Because some of these kids can't pay. So we've been tiptoeing that line all semester."

Many students perceive Delta Phi and Sigma Chi as having particularly wealthy members. Sigma Chi brothers pay roughly $1,000 per year in dues, said Peipert, a member of the fraternity. Delta Phi brothers pay around $700 per year, said Rice, a member of the fraternity, adding that the exact amount fluctuates. 

Rice described the attitudes surrounding dues within Delta Phi as mostly cavalier. "They just say, 'Hey dad, I'm part of DPhi, I need this amount of money right now,' and they're like, 'Okay,' and send you a check. That's most of the kids," he said. But the fraternity does not exclude or penalize brothers and prospective brothers who cannot pay. "They can help you out a little here and there and not make you pay all of it," he said.

Most fraternities have programs that allow brothers not to pay their dues in full if their financial situation prevents them from doing so. 

Phi Psi national - whose dues, Rojiani said, run between $750 and $800 a year - offers its members merit-based scholarships
based on essays brothers submit about aspirations for the future, said Pierre Arreola '13, a member of the fraternity.

Sigma Chi offers formalized financial aid through its alumni association, in which brothers pay dues relative to the financial aid package allotted to them by the University. Twelve out of around 100 Sigma brothers are currently on financial aid, said another member who asked to remain anonymous because he did not wish to speak on behalf of the organization.

The hurdle to access

Athletics can attract students who, without their sports backgrounds, may not have known about or gained admission to Brown, Klawunn said. A recent Herald poll found that athletes and non-athletes are equally likely to be on financial aid, though athletes are more likely to take out loans. 

"Athletics is kind of like a great equalizer," said wrestler Teodoro Popolizio '12. 

"There are people on the team who wouldn't be in college if it wasn't for wrestling," Popolizio said, adding that most of the wrestlers at Brown come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. "That blue-collar attitude that wrestlers have is really special."

But athletes also feel the effects of class disparity. Since the University does not offer athletic scholarships, athletes at Brown participate out of passion, not because they needed a scholarship to get here, Popolizio said. 

Brown struggles to recruit middle-class athletes who cannot afford the amount of tuition not covered by financial aid, The Herald reported last April. 

Many students pointed to specific sports teams as disproportionately wealthy, since certain sports are more frequently offered at private schools or clubs and therefore draw a more privileged demographic.

Fleming, a co-captain of the crew team, noted that several Ivy League crew teams would fit the sport's elitist stereotype - "Where's the money at? Right there," he said. "But that's not the Brown crew team." Forty-six percent of the current crew team attended private schools with a tuition over $25,000, while 33 percent attended public school. These calculations do not take into account scholarships students might have received at their high schools.

People on the ice hockey team tend to be wealthier than those in other sports, said Aubree Moore '14, a member of the women's ice hockey team. "The equipment is so expensive and just to be able to afford that, you have to be able at least in the upper- or middle-end the spectrum," she said, adding that she thinks the socioeconomic diversity of the hockey team might be slowly increasing. Sixty-three percent of the current women's hockey team attended private school before coming to Brown. 

"Unfortunately, one of the best ways to be good at golf is to play a lot of golf, and if your parents are footing the bill for a private country club where you can play unlimitedly, you get a lot better," said Hoskins, a member of the golf team. Out of the seven members on the men's golf team, five attended private school.

Football, by contrast, is a more accessible sport that is offered at most high schools, said Donald Sproal '14. Fourteen percent of the current football team attended private schools with tuition over $25,000, while 54 percent attended public school.

The University's recruitment methods have also shifted to attempt to alleviate this problem. Ten years ago, recruiters would find athletes from specific schools, said Director of Athletics Michael Goldberger. "In the past, where let's say Harvard would go to (Phillips Academy) Andover and get the captain of their swim team, it tends not to work that way anymore," he said. Instead, he said, camps and clubs have served as the focal point in recent years. 

But recruiting out of camps and clubs players pay to participate in comes with its own selection problems. More and more high school lacrosse players have been joining club teams in the last decade, said Keely McDonald '00, head coach for women's lacrosse. "At this point, kids are basically paying for exposure," she said. 

Tensions surrounding class do not disappear when students leave College Hill. Graduation presents a looming obstacle: finding a job, a search that some worry places connections and credentials on equal footing. Many will strive to pay back loans and cope with the demand to achieve greater financial self-sufficiency as socioeconomic concerns persist, just on a larger playing field. The fourth and final part of The Herald's series will discuss how class and privilege affect life after Brown.

- With additional reporting by David Chung, Elizabeth Koh, Kate Nussenbaum, Alison Silver and Kat Thornton



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