UMass needs to cultivate class awareness through economic diversity

Economic diversity cannot be ignored

(Collegian file photo)

(Collegian file photo)

By Timothy Scalona, Collegian Columnist

The University of Massachusetts prides itself on academics, diversity and inclusion, with students who recite the mantra, “Hate has no home at UMass,” on laptop stickers, in group dialogue and in everyday conversation. But students, in my experience, also perpetuate classism as an economic opinion and discrimination as a form of free speech. As a member of the privileged poor, I have been forced to justify my existence to the advantaged in subtle interactions and commonplace situations. My narrative was deemed counterfeit – a world of survival made null by those whose privilege pushed me to question the validity of my experiences. In a year where UMass has suggested it has admitted its “most academically accomplished and diverse first-year class,” economic diversity is once more left out of the conversation.

I am at a campus party. The voices of the party-goers drown out my inner monologue in a sea of music. Conversations of relationship drama, exam dates, homework stress, food choices and vacation destinations attack my senses; I freeze – suffocated by a level of privilege that I both hold and fear as a low-income, previously homeless, first-generation college student. My heart rate quickens as sweat pours down my forehead. I stare around the crowd, unable to move.

I hear their worries, transfixed with my own of survival and necessity. I see my tear-stricken family of nine on that day, six years ago, when we lost our home and were thrust into homelessness.

I remember the numbness of perpetual hunger – a consequence of the hotel-living diet of microwavable chicken pot pies and gravy sandwiches – as someone talks of their love for Berkshire lobster and crème brûlée.

I hear of their family trips to Italy and France. My far-cry equivalent – a trip to a local Showcase Cinemas – was my only escape from the confines of our hotel prison. Homelessness and food insecurity shaped my childhood reality and reverberations have impacted my college experience. While still recognizing the privilege that I hold as a student, I cannot help but feel as if my low-income class identity and experiences are under scrutiny, amplified by a lack of economic diversity at UMass.

In a time of rampant wealth inequality and economic insecurity, higher education should act as an equalizer, providing opportunity for lower-income and disadvantaged persons alike to transcend their socioeconomic backgrounds. However, as tuition continues to rise and competitive testing standards become the norm, the institution has begun to systemically reinforce economic and racial privilege in a cycle that spans generations.

As an Educause Review article remarks: “More college completion among white and affluent parents brings higher earnings. Higher earnings buy more expensive housing in the leafy green suburbs with the best schools and peer support for educational attainment. The synergy between the growing economic value of education and the increased sorting by housing values makes parental education the strongest predictor of a child’s educational attainment and future earnings.” This is also furthered by the process in which the upper-middle class can hinder mobility and worsen structural inequality through the use of clout to secure generational advantage, such as in the case of using family connections to secure internship opportunities.

The UMass claim of academic accomplishment and diversity is not unfounded, notably with increases in the ALANA and underrepresented minority populations. However, while these are strides toward creating a more inclusive and diverse campus for all students, economic diversity and dialogue on the intersectional nature of the identities within beyond such, is once more disregarded. Impeded by ever-competitive standards of admission and progressive tuition increases, low-income and working-class students of many identities and experiences lack equitable opportunity to attend the University.

While this is largely impacted by the lack of state funding for the UMass system, the race to be named a top-20 public university fails to properly take into account the marginalized communities that will be left behind through fee increases and selectivity. The U.S. News ranking guidelines rooted in this competition impact “colleges’ admission decisions and financial priorities,” reinforcing the “deeply ingrained assumption that the more a school spends — and the more elite its student body — the higher it climbs in the rankings.” In this way, the average grade point average of the UMass class of 2022 is now a 3.90, and that of the Commonwealth Honors College a 4.29. While the University should aim to foster a student body of academic excellence, the economic realities of prospective students should be further stressed in the admissions process.

These admissions decisions affect the presence or absence of economic diversity on-campus, as the UMass system is pushed to appeal to students of privilege to best support the University and reinforce its selectivity – and the consequent rise in rankings. At the same time, the University fights to retain its title of No. 1 dining in the spirit of rank – pricing out students with expensive meal-plan prices, limiting opportunities for food-insecure students and perpetuating exclusion on-campus.

With a lack of economic diversity comes a culture of classism, as the realities of lower-income students are devalued by both university systems and student life that cater to the needs of the privileged. Beyond providing a means of social mobility, UMass should aim to recruit students of financially disadvantaged backgrounds, for which it already has shown a commitment. As they must follow through with their intentions and aim higher, the experiences of these students will be legitimized and supported – fostering greater class awareness and dialogue alongside the equitable recruitment of students of all socioeconomic backgrounds.

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