Commonwealth Honors College culture a symptom of wealth inequality and faux meritocracy

By Timothy Scalona

(Collegian File Photo)

The University of Massachusetts Commonwealth Honors College is an area of pristine architecture and beauty, whose dorms are state of the art in size and comfort, with residents that are intellectually driven and destined for success. Upon entering the on-campus location, one is met with stone pathways, striking podiums, open greenery, lavish decor and the subtle scent of class privilege and elitism.

Those that live outside of this visual utopia often hold an unconscious disdain or envy for those that are fortunate enough to live within. The Honors College is a personified, centralized expression of the wealth inequality and disparity on campus. While there is no outright discrimination against Honors students on campus, there is a tension that derives from this cultural divide. By giving the area the ‘honors’ moniker and then increasing the price dramatically, it has been enveloped in an aura of privilege; it has become symbolic of the faux meritocracy that is our education system today – one in which wealthy elites reinforce advantage and status and leave lesser privileged persons the crumbs.

Monetarily, it is $300 more per semester to live in a Honors First-Year Shared room than in a standard shared room in any other residential area. In addition, Honors students have the opportunity to take advantage of suite-style living that, while expensive, other residential communities cannot partake in. On top of this, in order to be an active student in the Honors College, regardless of residential status, one must pay $600 more a year – $300 per semester – adding to the already hefty sum. While the increased price may be justified in light of more comfortable living arrangements, it detracts from the Honors name by adding wealth as a prerequisite. Given the high added cost that is required to simply hold Honors status and to live in the dorm complex, it is to no surprise that the area has become a majority cluster of upper and upper middle-class students. This, described by one NY Times columnist, is reiterated in the process by which public universities “draw students whose profiles may bolster the university’s stature and rankings” and consequently “replicate, within a public school, the kind of stratified, status-conscious dynamic at play in the hierarchy of private schools.” Furthermore, this economic disparity in Honors demographics is too rooted in the high standards required for entry– a high GPA and above average SAT scores– that many low-income students are less able to achieve, as I discussed in a previous article.

The cultural divide that the demographic inequalities in the college create is visible in the way that students interact and view the world. There are even those that flaunt their Honors title to elevate their sense of self-importance. Statements, such as “I’m from Sycamore,” are emphasized and lengthened, giving a subtle indicator of the speaker’s egocentric worldview and probable financial stability. To be fair, this way of thinking is well-recognized in the Honors populace. As one Honors student described, the minority of students that do not fit this mold, in order to avoid an association with the dominating elitist thought, tend to forgo relaying their status,.

Being a low-income, previously homeless student and Honors student, I am fortunate enough to benefit from dual perspectives – from both within and outside of the system. I transferred into the Honors College last year as a second semester freshman. Despite my admission, I continued to live in the Southwest Residential Area in my consequent year. For someone like me, another $600 on my student bill would have broken my ability to attend, as I barely scrape by as-is, working multiple jobs year-round while trying to maintain a stable academic and extracurricular life. Despite this, I do actively involve myself in the Honors College. This past spring I was the student speaker for the Scholarship Awards Ceremony; I also currently I work as a CHC blogger. For this reason, I do value the institution for the opportunities it can offer and I believe in its ability to foster economic diversity amidst a push for selectivity.

To remedy this issue, the Honors College has made great strides in providing financial support for first generation and low-income students to maintain their standing. This is in the form of both need-based and merit-based scholarships and aid, such as the Linda Lockwood Opportunity Scholarship that covers the aforementioned Honors fee. However, the institution itself should provide community for individuals of varying backgrounds under the umbrella of intellectual pursuits. The ability to actively engage in smaller, more in-depth classes, and the ability to write a thesis with faculty support are among the many positive opportunities that have come to define the Honors experience. However, while these are significant strides, there is much more to be done.

UMass, as the state flagship campus of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Public Higher Education System, needs to shape its Honors College not in the image of wealth and picturesque construction, but rather on a student’s ability and potential to transcend their socioeconomic status to succeed. For too long, the widespread lack of economic diversity within this area of campus has produced a climate of classism and inequality. It is not my objective to demonize current Honors students, as I realize that many of these mindsets are unconscious. I do, however, reaffirm the need for our Honors College to be more than just a wealth signifier. It needs to stand for and represent lesser fortunate and marginalized communities alike, to bestow upon them an equal opportunity to succeed in an education system that has increasingly left them behind.

Timothy Scalona is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]