Commentary

Priceless Conversations

On the very first day of my Junior fall, Andover’s Financial Aid Office gave me a Dell Latitude laptop. This laptop quickly became the badge of the “Scholarship Kid,” as it was so obviously only owned by scholarship kids in a sea of MacBooks and more expensive PCs. I understand why some students felt uncomfortable having such a clear marker of their socioeconomic class to carry with them. For this reason, I also understand why the Financial Aid Office has, in recent years, been providing full-scholarship students with MacBooks instead of the less congruous Dells.

I am infinitely grateful for the generosity of Andover’s Financial Aid Office – without it, I would not have been able to have a high school experience that has been nothing short of incredible. I also think that providing MacBooks for full scholarship students is just another example of how the office seeks to make every Andover student feel included and cared for in the community. The Financial Aid Office has committed itself to creating a feeling of equality and belonging in the wealthy and historically classist atmosphere of the school. Based on my experiences at Andover, however, I would argue that trying to create a standard and class-neutral presentation for all students – an attempt which extends far beyond standardized laptops – is more often intended to prevent the discomfort of financially privileged students rather than those on financial aid.

I’ve witnessed many uncomfortable conversations centered on the topic of socioeconomic class in which the most dominant voice belonged to socioeconomically privileged students. I’ve heard such students argue that their parents worked hard to give them the life that they have, adding that if other people just worked harder, they too could achieve economic success. Statements like these fail to acknowledge the complicated nature of class and how it intersects with so many other facets of identity. More importantly, they do not negate the reality that being raised in a socioeconomically-privileged environment has an incredible impact on many parts of a person’s life. While the topic is understandably challenging to discuss, the inability to recognize our own privileges only means that we are failing to learn from one another’s different perspectives and lifestyles. It means that we are avoiding something that has and will always shape our lives in a profound way.

The distribution of wealth at Andover is best represented by numbers. In 2014-2015, 47 percent of Andover students were on some form of financial aid. That leaves 53 percent of students whose families are paying over $50,000 (nearly $40,000 for day students) every year for their child’s education. Considering the national median household income hovers just above $50,000, according to the US Census Bureau, there is no doubt that the price of tuition is an incredible privilege.

Socioeconomic class is just as multifaceted and complicated as any other part of identity, and much of how we perceive class as individuals is based on personal experience. Thus, because of the great diversity in our community, each student has different standards of normalcy that are light-years apart from those of others.

As a private, historically wealthy institution, Andover has a long and enduring history of elitism and classism, and we cannot erase that by hiding behind matching MacBooks. Nor can we erase the fact that our lives and perspectives are irrevocably different because of the difference in our socioeconomic backgrounds; this difference is not necessarily bad per se, but should not be ignored nevertheless.

I think that we need to better acknowledge the immense range of class backgrounds and class perspectives that exist within our community. Only by recognizing and discussing this diversity can we bridge the gap between acceptance to Andover and acceptance within Andover. Many History and Personal and Community Education classes already address the issue of income inequality; let that be a starting point to establish a common understanding. Socioeconomic class should, in my opinion, be a standard discussion topic in dorms and advising groups starting as early as Junior year, because it is a nuance we will all have to navigate every day during our time here and beyond.

There are many ways for Andover to show its commitment to socioeconomic inclusivity. We can and should facilitate these discussions with our peers and hold more forums. We should encourage more support for financial aid students by, for example, bringing in guest speakers to the Office of Community and Multicultural Development or the Rebecca M. Sykes Wellness Center to speak about socioeconomic differences. And personally, I think a more practical computer option for scholarship students might be preferable, as just one way to stop enforcing wealth as the norm. But, ultimately, it is the students who will be responsible for fully creating an inclusive community. For the sake of yourself and others, let us not forget the way our socioeconomic statuses affect us outside Andover’s gates.

Jan 21, 2016