White, straight, well-to-do individuals dominate our cultural representation of college students, and many of us find ourselves at odds with this hegemonic image. Working class students and those who receive need-based aid are often excluded from this representation. In other words, their experiences are seen as deviant to those of ‘normal’ college students.
I couldn’t afford AU without my merit scholarship. Yet by narrowly focusing on how the new financial aid distribution would affect people like me, The Eagle has failed to represent the voice of the entire student body. The content and rhetoric of last week’s editorial column inadvertently marginalized many students’ experiences, perpetuating a flawed campus discourse on socioeconomic status which excludes certain students from being seen as legitimate.
“AU is about to lose its middle class,” the editorial begins. What does this mean in a country where 90 percent of us identify as middle class? The editorial polarizes students who are middle class and receive merit aid with those who are working class and receive need-based aid. This is misleading because class background isn’t so clear-cut.
Many students on campus receive both types of aid and don’t fall into either category. Furthermore, this type of thinking limits the way we can talk about our socioeconomic backgrounds. Class is a cultural identity that may include income, but it can’t be limited to a superficial indicator such as the contents of our FAFSA reports.
Reducing diverse socio-economic backgrounds into simple categories of middle and working class is not only misleading, but also embarks on a slippery slope that ultimately stigmatizes working class students. The Eagle describes middle class students as “work[ing] hard to receive [merit] scholarships.” That seems reasonable: students who work hard deserve to attend AU at an affordable price.
Intentional or not, the rhetoric used by The Eagle characterizes middle class students as hard working and simultaneously implies that students who receive need-based aid don’t put in the same effort.
The Eagle’s arguments rely on what’s known as the “myth of meritocracy,” the idea that anybody who is smart and works hard will get ahead. The Eagle perpetuates this myth by saying that AU students aren’t privileged because they work hard.
Class privilege, despite this rhetoric, exists. By denying it, we stigmatize working class students and send the implicit message that anybody could receive merit aid if they only worked hard enough.
Acknowledging class privilege is difficult because it challenges the value of our success. I’m not saying that if you are a middle class student who receives merit aid you haven’t worked hard or made sacrifices. I’m saying that social class enables some to capitalize off hard work in a way that’s not available to all students. Your privilege may have contributed to your merit scholarship.
Consider what resources were available in your high school that helped make you competitive for these scholarships, such as SAT prep programs, college counselors and AP or IB courses. Think about the difference between having a support system that expects you to go to college rather than routinely tells you that you aren’t “college material.”
There is nothing wrong with having privilege, however it becomes a problem when we insist that our privilege doesn’t exist. Rising tuition costs affect all students. However, comments such as “merit-based aid had become the new need-based aid” suggest that we have all been affected equally, which is not true.
This denies the challenges of working class families during the recession and refuses to acknowledge the diversity of class experiences on our campus.
Discourse at AU should reflect the experiences of students from all backgrounds. It’s essential that we acknowledge our class privilege and the fact that all students on our campus have the same right to an education, regardless of which aid they receive.
Derek Siegel is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences.