It is no secret that there are vast financial disparities among students at this university. Yale received national attention earlier this year when The New York Times reported that more students here come from the wealthiest 1 percent of families than from the bottom 60 percent combined. If this shocked me then as a freshman — it shouldn’t have — it definitely doesn’t shock me now. While these differences are rarely spoken of, students here have found plenty of ways to demarcate class boundaries — and they are hard to miss.
Take, for instance, the trendy outerwear which descended on campus with the arrival of the proper Northeastern winter. To my untrained eye, the proliferation of Canada Goose jackets appeared to be just another fashion choice — a fad like any other, fueled by a high level of brand recognition. That was, until I learned that those jackets cost an average of $900. The little circular logo that so many of my classmates wear on the sleeves of their coats costs as much as a family of four on TANF — the federal government’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — can receive in a month.
While surely not everyone paid that much for their jackets (I believe there must be ways of getting them for less), it is the rampant inclination to associate with excess which we should find suspect. Our choices in visual presentation draw lines between students who wear designer boots and those who need help from their residential colleges to purchase winter necessities. They mark the fluid but still tangible boundary between those of us who know the location of the financial aid office and those who don’t. As we well know, humanity has an unfortunate tendency toward visual discrimination, and it seems that in the absence of intrinsic class differentiators we have constructed them for ourselves. The real tragedy of this is its artificiality, but also that it has far-reaching effects.
This brings us to an inexorable truth of Yale’s (admittedly great) financial aid packages — anyone may be able to attend Yale regardless of their financial background, but that does not mean that they will have a similar or even comparable experience to their wealthier peers once they are here. From choosing one’s major, to prioritizing extracurriculars, work opportunities and social life, to discerning which friend groups one might best fit in with, class considerations touch all areas of life for low-income students. The class indicators we see around us are the silent enforcers of this reality.
Still, the question remains: Why are Yale’s potent economic disparities not a greater part of our campus discourse? If The New York Times can talk about them openly, why do we feel the need to relegate these matters to the realm of symbolic politics? Perhaps we are just trying to be politically correct, admirably but ineffectually attempting to avoid an uncomfortable topic. Alternatively, it could be that our visual cues are so effective in isolating class-defined spaces that we rarely find the opportunity to bring economic disparities to the forefront.
Even so, I believe this phenomenon can be largely attributed to the narrow definition of success which reigns on Yale’s campus. Here, success is financial reward, productivity and prestige. It is the internship with Goldman Sachs, the paper published in Nature, the Rhodes scholarship. Here, success is a Canada Goose coat. Instead of being openly discussed and critiqued, markers of wealth become something low-incomes students are pressured to aspire to, and the prophecy fulfills itself. At times, I admit I get the sense that my years at Yale will only count as worthwhile if I eventually manage to cross this financial chasm. All too often I must remind myself why I am a STEM major — that I’m in it for the science, not the job security.
I write this column not to condemn, but to promote an important debate. As winter gives way to spring, and the luxury outerwear gives way to a rainbow of pricey pastels, we should take the opportunity to more closely examine the ways in which we present ourselves. Those choices are not merely aesthetic; they carry weight for our community. I have the privilege of going to school with people whose families are billionaires and celebrities, and they have the privilege of going to school with me. Yale is composed of people from vastly different backgrounds, but that diversity only has value if we are willing to engage with it and all of its implications.
Brennan Carman is a freshman in Hopper College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .