Recently, George Washington University raised tuition, room, and other fees to $50,000 a year, making it one of the priciest institutions of higher education in the country. To offset sticker shock, officials at most high-priced universities tout need-blind admissions and generous financial aid as ways to ensure access to as many talented students as possible. Some have even suggested that wealthy universities use their inflated endowments to make undergraduate education at their institutions free. Having been a low-income student at Brown, I can’t help but think that such solutions, laudable as they may be, somehow miss the point.
Even if you assume that low-income students are able to overcome the significant barriers they face—less-qualified teachers, antiquated high-school facilities, fewer demanding classes, and mediocre extracurriculars—and gain admittance to a top-tier college, how do they cope with the environment they encounter once they arrive on campus? In addition to groping their way around an unfamiliar physical landscape, students of modest means must also navigate a social environment that may be completely alien. They must live among peers who spend summers in Europe, who regularly order pizza even while on a full meal plan, and who drop $300 on furniture to make over their dorm rooms.
Intellectually, I always felt I belonged at Brown. But in other ways, I felt as if I were “passing.” I could give the impression that I was a “normal,” middle-class student, but the reality was that I truly needed my on-campus jobs, that I passed up a junior semester abroad because I was afraid I’d run out of money far from home, and that I never even contemplated a starving-artist existence after graduation because I knew I would be paying back my student loans. When you’re handed a flyer inviting you to spend spring break in Bermuda, or when your roommate has a car—a BMW, even—your concept of what’s normal begins to get distorted.
I’m not asking for sympathy. I loved Brown. I know how fortunate I was to attend classes there. The University did not have need-blind admissions at the time, and my need was considerable. But I find it ironic that at the institution where I learned to craft Marxist interpretations of Madame Bovary and the films of Douglas Sirk, I still felt uncomfortable challenging the assumptions of privilege that surrounded me.
I applaud Brown for adopting need-blind admissions and other measures to ease the financial burden on lower-income students. But I’d really like to see selective colleges invest their prestige, leadership, and financial and academic resources toward improving American primary and secondary education, particularly in poor neighborhoods and school districts. By doing so, schools like Brown would create a larger pool of highly qualified low-income applicants from which to choose.
And I hope Brown sustains an environment in which intellectual richness is valued over the material kind, where young people are encouraged to resist a relentless consumer culture in which college students are just the latest demographic to exploit. Such developments would convey a powerful message about the premium Brown places on equal opportunity, diversity, and the pursuit of knowledge.
Amy R. Ramos is a freelance writer in Santa Barbara, California.