Americans traditionally have fancied themselves as living in a “classless” society, in contrast to the way most of the world functions. As a result, scholars pay little attention to what role class plays in people’s lives as a whole, much less in education. Fortunately, some researchers are breaking the taboo to study the effects of class on academic life.
Race and Class Matters at an Elite College, by Elizabeth Aries, $24.95, Temple University Press, (September 2008), ISBN-10: 1592137261, ISBN-13: 978-1592137268, pp. 256.
What happens when the children of the White elite, the White lower class/lower income, the Black elite, and the Black lower class/lower income meet on the campus of an elite college? Do distinctions of class blur and disappear? Does shared race cancel out the differences of the Black prep school graduate and the poor-but-gifted, Black urban teen? Do the Whites “bond” in spite of vast differences in disposable incomes and social perquisites? Do they all seek out each other eagerly, revel in their differences, sing “Kum Ba Ya,” and forge ahead together toward a dazzlingly diverse future?
To find the answers to such questions, Dr. Elizabeth Aries, a professor of psychology at Amherst College, studied 58 of the 432 students entering the college in the 2005-2006 year, using online questionnaires and personal interviews. She divided them into four groups: “affluent Whites, affluent Blacks, Whites with high financial need, limited family education, or both, and Blacks with high financial need, limited family education, or both.”
At the time, she notes, one-third of the freshman class were “self-identified students of color,” 12 percent were the first in their families to go to college and 47 percent received some financial aid (on average $28,000) toward the $40,000 a year tuition. She notes that the college devotes a great deal of money and effort into assembling a student body that is diverse by economics, race, ethnicity, gender, religion and other factors — largely in the hopes that students will learn to live together in a harmonious society and contribute to it.
“What, then actually happens to students at Amherst?” Aries asks. “What is the return to the college community on its enormous investment in diversity? … Does having racial, ethnic and class diversity at Amherst result in people interacting in ways that enhance their understanding of those different from themselves?
In pursuit of the answers, Aries looked at the students’ past experiences with diversity of race and class, how these differences played out in college, how much the students segregated themselves or formed relationships across race-class lines, what benefits they gained from diversity and other issues.
Some of what she found probably will be familiar to those of minority backgrounds who have matriculated at White-majority colleges, those of lower-income backgrounds from any race who attended Ivy League schools and possibly to anyone who has had the reverse experience of not being Black on a historically Black campus. For everyone, however, there are fresh insights, particularly those from the mouths of the students themselves. Aries also offers recommendations on how colleges might help students adjust to the diverse campus and get more out of the once-in-a-lifetime interaction that college can provide.
As a whole, she found that the students had “quite positive feelings about their experiences on campus” and learned something about people of other groups. However, she found that, “given the potential that existed for learning from one another, it seems fair to add that much potential went unrealized.”
Aries wrote that she plans to reassess the students, who would be beginning senior year now, at the end of their four years of college. That would be a welcome sequel to this provocative and challenging study. As she notes, the issues of race and class at Amherst are not unique to it but are the same ones “being dealt with or avoided throughout the larger society.
“What we learned at Amherst has important implications beyond its campus,” she concludes.
— Angela P. Dodson is an online editor for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.
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