Tom Aiello: Making fun cheaper

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 6:17pm

I was invited to a bar crawl this past weekend. Though I love Charley’s, The Brown Jug and Rick’s, the thought of going to each in quick succession made me anxious. I tried to do a quick mental calculation of how much mixed drinks, beer and cover from each bar would cost me. The number was intimidating.

Having a social life at this university is expensive. Bar covers, drinks, tickets to movies and concerts, Ubers and dinners at Ann Arbor’s many fine restaurants are not kind to student budgets. However, the alternative is often staying in alone while your friends have a blast. At the least socioeconomically diverse public university in the nation, this phenomenon is especially disturbing.

If the University of Michigan is to become a place where people of all incomes feel welcome, wealthier students should be more conscious of their peers’ ability to pay when making social plans.

The median annual parental income is $154,000, three times the Michigan average. A full two-thirds of students come from the top 20 percent of national incomes, while less than 4 percent come from the bottom 20 percent of incomes. Perhaps most depressingly, the University ranks last out of all public universities in terms of economic mobility for students.

The University’s predominance of wealthy students naturally breeds a campus culture in which money is often taken for granted. And even if the University admitted more low- and middle-income students, would they even want to stay in an environment where social pressures encourage nonstop spending?

The University’s tuition partially explains this exclusivity. In-state tuition has been consistently rising and now sits at $14,826. Consistently decreasing state funding has encouraged the University to accept more out-of-state students who pay sky-high tuitions. Furthermore, Ann Arbor’s housing costs are a full 73 percent higher than the national average. Add books and miscellaneous costs to the equation, and attending the University costs $29,526, if you're lucky enough to live in-state. That’s about two-thirds of the average Michigan household income. The University social scene shouldn’t require low- and middle-income students to shell out enormous amounts of cash on top of the already exorbitant costs of attendance.

A number of factors contribute to the University’s overly classist social scene. First, it seems as if almost every social event requires attending one of Ann Arbor’s often costly dining, drinking or entertainment establishments. Going to a friend’s birthday dinner at Sava’s, seeing Mac DeMarco perform at Hill Auditorium and buying a movie ticket for the Michigan Theater each costs a lot of money. Nightlife further squeezes one’s budget. The two most popular bars on campus, Rick’s and Scorekeepers, charge covers to get in and offer pricey drink menus. Even the ubiquitous coffee date at Espresso Royale or Starbucks requires a few bucks for a latte. Students build their social lives around activities at these establishments; almost every date, get-together or night out with friends comes with a high cash premium.

Some institutional features of the campus social scene further exclude students of lower socioeconomic status. Institutions like Greek life and club sports charge entry dues or require expensive gear to participate. Additionally, the time commitment of these activities precludes some who participate from working part-time jobs. These organizations play a large role in the campus social scene — they are an easy place to make friends and often host large parties.

I recognize many of these organizations offer financial assistance. However, the monetary barriers may still prove prohibitive to many students of lower socioeconomic status. Because financial barriers exclude many less wealthy students, these organizations help maintain physical and social separation between the University's wealthy and less well-off students. Furthermore, these organizations' exclusivity is especially harmful to economic mobility given their facilitation of beneficial personal connections to successful peers and alumni. Unequal access to these institutions only further isolates poorer students from campus social activities.

When students miss event after event, maintaining friendships on campus becomes very difficult. It can be embarrassing to admit you can’t get dinner because your bank account can’t weather it. I know I’ve told friends I couldn’t make it to an event when I really just couldn’t afford it at the moment. Missing these social events means missing crucial moments of friendship. 

Other everyday realities on campus also exclude students of lower socioeconomic status from the University’s social scene. The most obvious is housing. As a recent Daily survey indicates, students of lower economic status tend to live farther from campus, and students with more money tend to live closer to campus, restaurants and bars. High rents and simple geography give richer students easy access to the popular hangout spots in the city. With the recent crop of luxury student high-rises that cost up to $1,999 a month, rich students can live, quite literally, on top of the bars.

I recognize that many students frequently enjoy social activities that require virtually no money, such as watching Netflix with friends or hanging out in the Arb. Additionally, I’m not arguing all students should swear off Skeep’s forever and live as hermits. I only ask that wealthier students become a little more conscientious when asking friends out to dinner, concerts and the bar. Perhaps a night out could be swapped for a movie night at home, a concert could be swapped for a trip to the UMMA and a fancy dinner could be swapped for a homemade meal with friends. These activities may not solve the University’s diversity problem, but they may make the University just a little more inclusive for students of lower incomes.

Tom Aiello can be reached at thomaiel@umich.edu.