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February 20, 2014 - 4:33pm

Feminine Critique: Disparities in economic diversity


More students came from families earning at least $200,000 per year than from the entire bottom half of the income distribution in the 2003 University of Michigan entering freshman class. Let that sink in. Unfortunately, recent numbers don’t look much better. In the 2011-2012 freshman class, 21% of incoming freshman households made more than $250,000, 9% made $200,000-$249,999, and another 32% made $100,000-$199,999. (These numbers, by the way, were difficult to ascertain, far more so than racial/ethic demographics).

But Michigan is not alone; this is a national trend. Among elite universities, students from the bottom income quartile account for only five percent of the student population. Research has proven low- and middle-income students are no less capable than their more affluent peers, just more reactive to prohibitive costs and so more likely to forgo prestigious universities for more affordable community colleges. Some students even opt not to apply altogether — dubbed the “fear factor.” Despite these statistics, in the public imaginary, college remains a beacon of meritocracy, a stable step in the ladder to socio-economic success. However, these data indicate that college is more a mechanism to simply perpetuate class privilege rather than a pathway to socioeconomic mobility.

A five year study by University Associate Professor of Sociology and Organizational Studies Elizabeth Armstrong and University of California, Merced sociologist Laura Hamilton further confirm the impact of class on college success. The research team spent one year living in a “party dorm” at a Midwestern flagship university big on sports and party culture. (Sound familiar? Don’t worry, it wasn’t the University of Michigan.) Of the 53 female students in the hall, all were white. Of the working-class students, not one graduated from the university within 5 years; some transferred to community colleges, some opted for an associate degree, some wanted to get away from more affluent peers. Meanwhile, affluent students, “were able to recreate their parents’ success. They all graduated.” To make things grimmer, not one cross-class friendship developed. In a recent New York Times interview, Armstrong admitted, “We [her research team] did not expect this to be as depressing as it turned out to be.”

Armstrong and Hamilton conceptualized the university as corroborating the patterns of social life via facilitating certain “pathways” for students: party, professional and mobility, for example. Those on the party pathway were mostly wealthy, out-of-state students, and often had easy majors. Armstrong alluded to a “disengagement contract” forming between professors and students, wherein professors assign less/easier work in return for students leaving them alone, which perpetuates a system where social life trumps academic as a primary concern. Another advantage wealthy students of professional parents have is that, rather than the proverbial helicopter parents, their parents are “navigators.” They step in and advise their children which courses to take, which major to pick in a way that only parents with access to knowledge about higher education can. Thus, parents step in to allow their children to mimic their own professional success. According to Armstrong, the Greek system — complemented by the pathways facilitated by the university that privilege the most advantaged students — reproduce race, class, gender and sexuality in hegemonic ways.

During a University of Michigan Institute for Research on Women and Gender sponsored panel discussion of the book, it became clear that this privilege isn’t the nebulous, guilt-inducing concept it’s so often reduced to. In fact, Professor of Women’s Studies, Psychology, and Afroamerican and African Studies, Elizabeth Cole, pointed out that privilege manifests itself in behavior characteristic of a sense of entitlement, such as screaming in the hallways of the residence hall while drunk late at night. Meanwhile, Michael Bastedo from the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education stressed that even within a university, certain pathways offer additional, exclusive benefits, like the advising offered by the honors college or career prep specifically for business school students.

Although the university studied was not Michigan, certainly there are recognizable similarities. There are national economic trends that far outstrip the power of university administrators propelling college as a mechanism of reproducing class and social privilege. Yet, as a college degree becomes more and more crucial to financial success, socio-economic status should more visibly be recognized as part of the mission of “diversity” at a public institution. I applaud efforts to circumvent Michigan 2006 proposal 2 by incorporating income and racial diversity in admissions decisions while still reaching the same end goal of class — because of course the two are deeply intertwined. However, the impoverished campus conversation concerning socioeconomic disparities should be amplified. This should be done not to increase the diversity of ideas, to generate better classroom discussion, or so rich kids feel bad (i.e. “learn from”) their low-income peers, but because providing a pathway of mobility is the morally just thing to do.

Emma Maniere can be reached at