Have You Checked Your Class Privilege Today? (Circle Yes or No)

Section A

  • Have you ever filled out a FAFSA form? Yes/No
  • Have you ever had to worry about budgeting your daily life? Yes/No
  • Did you pay for your own plane tickets if/when you studied abroad? Yes/No
  • Have you ever been barred from pre-registration because you were unable to make a tuition payment? Yes/No
  • Do you have a job, on or off campus, that you rely on for self-sufficiency? Yes/No
  • Are you the first in your family to attend college? Yes/No
  • Do you feel some amount of pressure/responsibility to provide financially for your parents in their retirement? Yes/No

If you responded “No” to any of the above questions, you have some privilege to check!

Section B

  • Are your parents paying the full cost of your tuition? Yes/No
  • Are you graduating with absolutely zero debt? Yes/No
  • If you went abroad, did your parents visit you there? Yes/No
  • Do your parents regularly put money in your bank account? Yes/No
  • Would conversations regarding class privilege be completely out of place in your home? Yes/No

If you responded “Yes” to any of the above questions, you have some privilege to check!

Thanks for taking the quiz! Odds are, you had some Yes’s and some No’s in both sections (I know I did). We all have privileges to check, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Hopefully this article can give you a sense of my experience as a low-income student at Vassar.

It’s no secret that Vassar’s student population has a huge wealth disparity, and that’s not an accident. Vassar has historically accepted a large number of Pell Grant students, while also accepting full-pay students in an attempt to balance in its endowment. For better or for worse, Vassar students spend a lot of time with people from a different wealth bracket. Knowing how to navigate these inevitable cross-class friendships is not only a useful skill, but is an important part of expanding ones’ exposure to unfamiliar perspectives. The only issue is that these tricky social interactions consistently add undue stress on low-income students. 

Money can be such a sensitive subject, making it hard to know what to say when peers express money-related issues. It can feel exhausting to not share a part of your identity or your experience (whether you’re low-income, first generation, a student of color, or some intersections of these identities). In my experience, conversations regarding these identities are avoided in order to dodge the inevitable awkwardness. This happens all too often. I know the low-income friends I can go to when I need to complain about financial aid, and I know the rich friends who do not understand, nor do they seem to want to try to understand. We can no longer allow high-income students to remain comfortably unaware of their privilege.

I know that it’s really easy to stay silent when wealth inequality comes up, letting the awkwardness linger until your low-income friend understands that they shouldn’t bring up money around you anymore. The truth is, that behavior is not an example of being a good friend. When this happens to me, it damages my friendships and incites feelings of shame about my background. Of course, their reaction comes from discomfort rather than malcontent, but I wish such conversations didn’t have to be awkward at all. Create space for your friends to talk about their issues, and be a responsive listener, even if you can’t relate. Do not become a brick wall; do not change the subject; do not pity them. Just listen and empathize. This is good advice for friendship in general, but is particularly important when it comes to money problems. Just giving your friends the time and space to talk is incredibly helpful in terms of support.

The last time I spoke  to a friend about our wealth differences, she immediately grew defensive. Although she didn’t ask explicitly, her tone communicated the following: “Do you not want me to be happy? Should I pass up on things you can’t afford just to save your feelings? Should I not post about the places I go and the things I do, just in case my followers don’t have those opportunities?” Of course not, I reassured her. I want her to enjoy nice things—I want her to thrive! But continuing to ignore this dissonance in our relationship was becoming increasingly difficult for me. It was a classic case of “The One with Five Steaks and an Eggplant.” Though the episode includes some great zingers (“I guess I just never think of money as an issue.” “That’s ‘cus you have it.”), it ends without any real closure to the issue. My conversation with my friend went similarly. When I mentioned that her positive experience abroad was disproportionately affected by her access to her family’s wealth, she immediately deflected, suggesting that it had nothing to do with money. This failure to acknowledge her privilege was certainly a bad start. Eventually, she did promise to work harder at self-awareness for the sake of her friends, but did not once verbalize her privilege or appear to care about genuine self-reflection. Moreover, after shutting down that conversation in a flurry of excuses and defensiveness, her self-awareness has not improved, and she continues to alienate her friends.

I felt incredibly disappointed about this interaction, especially since it was with one of my closest friends. I wish she had agreed, right away, about the differences in our experiences that I had pointed out. It’s not helpful to turn a blind eye to legitimate wealth disparities. It is helpful to think about the differences between yours and your low-income friends’ experience, and why those differences exist. If a friend is feeling brave enough to talk to you about a vulnerable part of their life, treat that topic with openness and care. In my experience, it’s extremely challenging to successfully approach a privileged friend about their privilege, and it’s not something I tend to do without serious provocation.

As a Vassar student, of course I have friends who are wealthy, and most of the time money is not something the precludes a friendship. I know so many great people who tactfully acknowledge their privilege, try to understand, and respectfully navigate discussions about lifestyle differences and money issues. This genuine openness and self-awareness is what I hope to see more of on campus.

The point of the privilege quiz was to point out the many things you’ll never have to deal with that we already deal with–and have been dealing with for years. I’m already working on paying back my debt. I can’t always get home for holidays or breaks. My siblings have never been able to visit me on campus. FAFSA is a bureaucratic pain in the a$$. I’m graduating early so I can avoid the cost of another full year at this ridiculously expensive school. I know there are many others on this campus who have the same issues I do, and still others who certainly have more to stress about. I know that I’m extremely lucky to even attend Vassar, and that my circumstances are not unlivable by any means. However, it is a definite bummer to spend my winter break working on applying for another loan and picking up as many extra shifts as possible. It’s not that high-income students do not have stress, but please acknowledge that you are free from a lot of stress that your peers face.

There’s plenty of “I hate capitalism” thrown around by Vassar kids, and not enough “I hate that I benefit from capitalism.” It matters to me that you acknowledge that you benefit from the system, just as white people must acknowledge that they benefit from the historic oppression of Black and brown people. It’s not enough to comment on the system—talk about your own place within it. Think about the implications of American capitalism on your life and on your friends’ lives.

The bottom line is, if you’ve had financial support constantly at your fingertips, then your life was made easier⁠—not easy, just easier. Please reflect on your privileges, if not for the betterment of your own character, then for the sake of a more nuanced understanding of the lives of your low-income friends. If they’re ranting to you about FAFSA complications or how the financial aid office won’t answer their emails, please listen to them, validate them, acknowledge how unfair it is that they have to handle things that you won’t ever have to. And then, if you’re feeling particularly introspective, question why they’ve had to handle these things when you haven’t. Reflecting on one’s own privilege is uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary part of dismantling a system that doesn’t work for everyone. (Hint: that system is capitalism.)

Acknowledge the divide. Own it. Own your own background and think about what you can do in your life to change the system. And if you think the system doesn’t need changing at all, go take the quiz again, and maybe do some additional reading outside of the confines of this webpage. While it’s always great to listen to the experiences of your friends, it is not poor students’ jobs to educate you on your own privilege.

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