In a New York Times article on Sunday, “First-Generation Students Unite,” Laura Pappano describes efforts to make life easier for the handful of Harvard who can’t afford “$1,000 Moncler puffer jackets.” We hear about a dean who, as an “icebreaker,” used to ask students what their parents did for a living, but stopped because it upset a first-gen student. Another dean matches roommates on the basis of shared financial-aid status. And a history professor asks students to self-assign “privilege points,” ostensibly to check the privileged students’ privilege, but ultimately leaves a first-gen student “embarrassed.”
While there’s a correlation between first-gen and low-income, the biggest problems Pappano cites—students’ inability to afford textbooks and extracurricular activities, for instance—would also apply to any low-income students whose parents had gone to college. The challenges are primarily financial, not cultural. So why, then, are we reading about which students had access to “daily doses of NPR”? Does repeated exposure to Terry Gross cover tuition and living expenses?
This is only the latest example of a long-running campus conversation about the subtle, cultural ways in which class asserts—a conversation that all too often ignores the realities of economic inequality. Privilege workshops and introspections abound in higher education, yet there’s scant evidence that increased awareness will reduce the underlying financial obstacles.