Colleges Face Challenge of the Class Divide In the United States, an education at an elite college can be a gateway to the upper class. But few can afford it. Amherst College in Massachusetts tries to be more inclusive by leveling the playing field for students.
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Colleges Face Challenge of the Class Divide

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Colleges Face Challenge of the Class Divide

Colleges Face Challenge of the Class Divide

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

All this week, we're focusing on the have and the have-nots, income inequalities in our country.

And today we're going to hear about education. It's no secret that a good education at an elite private college can be a gateway to the upper class. It's also very expensive. Tuition and board at the most prestigious colleges now tops $45,000 a year. At those prices, many colleges risk becoming bastions of the rich and the super rich. Like other elite schools, Amherst College in Massachusetts has struggled to become more inclusive.

NPR's Jim Zarroli reports on how Amherst is trying to level the playing field.

JIM ZARROLI: Amherst College President Anthony Marx sees class as one of the fundamental problems facing American colleges and universities today.

Mr. ANTHONY MARX (President, Amherst College): I think everyone in higher education is aware of the growing economic divide in this country and the challenges that divide creates for institutions that want the best students from across the society.

ZARROLI: And it's a challenge he hopes Amherst can address. With its spacious college green and its weathered red brick buildings, Amherst College is the picture of WASPy privilege. In fact, like a lot of elite schools, Amherst long ago became a more diverse place.

(Soundbite of crowd)

ZARROLI: Inside the Amherst dining hall, almost everyone is dressed in the uniform of the New England college student, fleece jackets, sweaters and jeans.

At first glance, it's hard to see much difference among people here, but the students here run the gamut from super rich to working class. Senior Jake Maguire says class differences are very much a fact of life at the school.

Mr. JAKE MAGUIRE: The day that I moved was the first day that I ever set foot on campus. You know, I knew, okay, it's sort of prestigious. Maybe there will be some rich kids there or something. I showed up and this one kid was actually moving his things into his room from his car with a Segway Scooter, you know, those $3,000 little gyroscopic things. And I remember in the winter of that year, the first time that I noticed one of my friends drove a Porsche, what is it, a Carrera, I think it's called. You know, I don't know adults who drive that car, never mind freshmen in college.

ZARROLI: Maguire grew up outside Boston. His parents are college educated, but he says the rich kids he's met at Amherst are simply different from people he's known before. It's not that they're overtly snobbish, but they have expectations and experiences that people in his middle class suburb never thought about.

Mr. MAGUIRE: You know, we got here and there's the kids that say oh, it's going to be great. I'm going to work for, you know, Goldman Sachs or whatever. What is that? A shoe store? I didn't know. I think, you know, kids whose parents are bankers come to college knowing what a banker is. I didn't know what a banker was.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. MAGUIRE: (Unintelligible)

ZARROLI: Today Maguire is getting together with Keith Erzinger at the school's coffee shop. The two met in a campus Christian group and have become friendly, though their backgrounds are quite different. Maguire mostly went to public schools. Erzinger attended a private school in Colorado. His father is a financial consultant who pays his tuition with money he set aside. Maguire is here on loans and financial aid and has a work study job.

Erzinger worked last summer at the New York Stock Exchange, the kind of job you get through connections. He understands that rich kids have advantages, but he tends to see class as much less important than Maguire does.

Mr. KEITH ERZINGER: Zero difference. Absolutely none. And the thing is, just from more financially, you know, backgrounds, we'll, yes, do the SAT prep. Yes, have tutors and yes, we'll be able to have a few more opportunities that other kids don't. But you've got the smartest kids in the country coming here, bottom line. No matter what their backgrounds are. And that's what's great.

ZARROLI: To Amherst President Marx, bridging the gap between students like Erzinger and Maguire is part of the school's historic mission. Amherst was co-founded by Noah Webster to train indigent students as missionaries. It's the kind of place where people naturally talk about class distinctions. The student government once cut off funding for the ski club because there wasn't enough money to ensure that all students could go on every trip. Today, half the students get financial aid.

But Marx says Amherst's economic diversity presents some challenges.

Mr. MARX: The differences of educational preparation in the United States are huge and are growing, even just within the public school system. The difference of the per student expenditure at the most privileged place and at the least privileged place is somewhere in the range of sevenfold at this point. I mean, it's incredible.

ZARROLI: Marx says wealthy schools offer things like smaller classes, foreign trips and honors programs that give their students an edge at college. And he says it's not just the poor who are at a disadvantage. Even bright students from middle class schools can lag behind.

Amherst offers tutoring and mentoring programs to try to level the playing field. It also tries to address the residual advantages that wealth provides.

Junior Griffin Bidron(ph) has a work study job sharpening skates at the ice-skating rink. He also plays on the hockey team. Bidron grew up in a farming community in Michigan, where he says nobody was wealthy.

He's a little amused by the rich kids he's met at Amherst. He says often they fly under the radar.

Mr. GRIFFIN BIDRON: They're the kid who comes to class every day in a pair of sweatpants, real pajamas almost. Comes to class, you know, is getting thrown in. My buddy's like, you know, his dad makes, you know, $100 million. And we're like, no way.

ZARROLI: Still Bidron knows how much money matters. Last summer he wanted to take an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill. Bidron's father couldn't afford to pay his living expenses and wanted him to come home and take a landscaping job. In the end, Bidron was able to get a grant from Amherst so he could take the internship. Amherst also buys suits for students who need them for job interviews.

But some people worry that the focus on class may detract from Amherst's core mission of education. Physics professor David Hall says correcting for inequities in education is a laudable goal, but it may be beyond the school's resources.

Professor DAVID HALL (Amherst College): Can you undo 12 years of damage in the public schools in a semester? I mean, if you haven't had the exposure to the sorts of things most of us in the middle class, upper class take for granted in our educational experience, can it be undone in a semester or two?

ZARROLI: But to Tony Marx, American colleges have no choice but to try to address class differences. Marx helped start a college for blacks in South Africa and he's seen how education can alleviate even the most intractable class differences.

Mr. MARX: That's what we're here for. We're educators. It is our responsibility to meet their educational needs. And those vary at different levels. We have to have the resources, particularly in the classroom, but also outside of the classroom, to support those students in the ways that they need so that they can succeed.

ZARROLI: Marx also notes that in a society that's becoming more divided by class, schools like his are among the few places where people of all income levels can interact.

If America is going to talk about class differences, he says, colleges and universities must be one of the places where the conversation gets started.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News.

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