Please put your iPhone back in your Patagonia sweatshirt pocket for a second. Apparently it’s time to rethink the idea that the Wesleyan student body is entirely made up of students from upper-class families, at least according to new data from the New York Times. In conjunction with an article on colleges recruiting from an increasingly diverse set of economic backgrounds, the Times has published a chart comparing the economic diversity of various schools. And Wesleyan has come out at number 13 on the list.
The chart ranks colleges according to a College Access Index, which is based on the percent of the past few freshman classes who came from low-income families (measured by the share receiving a Pell grant) and on the net price of attendance for low- and middle-income families. The data states that 18% of freshman classes arriving 2012-14 have received Pell grants, and that the average cost for low- and middle-income students is $8,700 a year. This gives Wesleyan a College Access Ranking of 1.5, putting us below Amherst and above Williams, for reference.
The chart and the article both make the point of highlighting the various efforts and successes in improving economic diversity at various colleges in comparison to their respective endowments. As they note, “otherwise similar colleges often have very different levels of commitment to economic diversity”. While most of the NESCAC fairs pretty well, while others like B.U. clearly could step up their game.
In a second graphic, they highlight Wesleyan’s relatively large population of lower-income students in comparison to the endowment. Given the ongoing discussions of Wesleyan’s current financial position and its effect on decisions regarding need-blind admissions over the past few years, this may come as a surprise to many.
While Wesleyan and other universities’ commitments to economic diversity are certainly something to be applauded, these numbers do not necessarily reflect the experiences of campus life. Just because the numbers suggest that Wesleyan is doing comparatively well at bringing in people from a variety of economic backgrounds does not necessarily mean that this is reflected in the presiding culture of the school. Given the enormous wealth required to pay full tuition to Wesleyan, a clear sense of economic privilege often permeates daily interactions, whether it’s in attitudes toward book costs or unpaid internship possibilities.
While universities like Wesleyan often pride themselves on their diversity, the numbers don’t always tell the whole story. As alt comments, the universities “don’t spend much time considering the experiences these students have on campus. I constantly feel irked when I recognize someone has much more time on their hands to devote to whatever they’re passionate about because they don’t have to work 15+ hours a week to make even just a slight dent in paying for their tuition and other (ridiculously expensive) costs of being at college. So whenever colleges preach class/economic diversity, or commit themselves to it, I tend to tune it out. What’s the point of being need blind (at the end of the day) and “meeting students’ full financial need” when they face such a huge gap in experiences from the students that pay full tuition?”
The university’s efforts to improve the economic diversity of the community are incredibly important, and rankings like these should certainly be noted and applauded. But the work to confront class issues at Wesleyan can’t stop with improving admissions of low-income students, because being a “low-income student” doesn’t change once you begin your time at Wesleyan. That identity is carried across the years and can be an immense burden to carry.
As the same New York Times article points out, drop-out rates for low-income students are a persisting problem, even at schools with increasing economic diversity. Along with tackling the culture of privilege that exists throughout various aspects of life on campus, the university must work to make the full four-year Wesleyan experience possible and fruitful for all students.