A Discussion on Class is Long Overdue

Let’s face it. When most people picture Andover, they don’t picture kids hanging out in the den after classes, taking messy power naps in the library basement (with an illegal bag of chips open on the floor next to them), walking to George Washington Hall to fill up their laundry cards, or making signs for reproductive health rallies on a Tuesday afternoon. They’re more likely to picture the towering face of Samuel Phillips Hall, impenetrable brick walls on main campus, tennis skirts, Vineyard Vines, and a sea of white, preppy, and undeniably rich students. This vision seems unshakably etched into Andover, its image, and its history. The reality of class at Andover, however, reveals a more complex picture.

On campus, there is no doubt that class divides and disparities underscore our Andover experiences. References to Canada Goose, Aspen vacation homes abound, or hundred-dollar afternoons out in Boston and flashy designer items are flaunted on Instagram and on the paths. For low-income students, the social divides at Andover pose a more challenging contention. Andover’s need-blind admissions policy, as well as its robust financial aid program, seeks to ensure that low-income students have their financial needs met when attending Andover. From aid grants determined by demonstrated need and the annual warm clothing drive, to a stack of backup laundry cards and new tennis shoes for sports, the Financial Aid office keeps itself stocked and ready to meet the needs of students on financial aid. 

Yet, while financial aid supports low income students’ financial needs, interpersonal tensions are another matter. Income disparity within the student body is strongly felt, though rarely discussed at Andover. Of all listed demographics, for instance, in the 2020-2021 State of the Academy, socioeconomic status was rated the least talked about, at a 48.6%. Moreover, 60.5% of respondents indicated that they believed that social divides existed among students of different socioeconomic statuses. So why does it feel like discussions on class are invisible, when class-based social divides permeate our student culture?

One aspect of class disparity at Andover is a lack of awareness and perspective on how socioeconomic status operates on campus, in contrast to wider culture outside of Andover. For instance, the median income bracket at Andover (as reported in State of the Academy) is 150,000 to 249,999 dollars, in comparison to the 2020 national household average of 67,521 dollars. Moreover, the largest percentage of students in one income bracket in the State of the Academy is 25.0 percent, from households that make over 500,000 dollars per year. Perhaps more revealing, though, is that the largest percentage of students answered “unsure” to the net household income question, at 26.3%. These answers suggest that although the student population of Andover is, as a whole, overwhelmingly socioeconomically privileged, the more pressing issue may be the silence at Andover about this privilege.

Affluent students, by virtue of their household financial stability, may not be aware of their socioeconomic circumstances in the way that lower-income students are. For instance, while the thought of arranging transportation to and from campus at the start and end of each school year may not even cross higher-income students’ minds, the issue may be pressing for lower-income students. Higher-income students may have the luxury of paying for E&R Laundry and not worry about how to wash their clothes, whereas lower-income students need to manage their time and finances in order to make sure they have enough money on their laundry cards, enough time to wash their clothes, and enough detergent to cover their wash loads. These considerations build up, and in a student culture where class is not often discussed, they may become weighty and isolating.

It seems a discussion of class at Andover is long overdue. Beyond interpersonal conversations on class and income disparity, Andover should host more opportunities to discuss class, such as forums or All School Meetings. Students also need to keep Andover’s privilege in perspective and broaden our understanding of income inequality. For instance, class disparity at Andover does not simply take the form of private jets vs. paycheck-to-paycheck; it also manifests in being able to cover partial tuition, but lacking the funds for class apparel or meals downtown. It exists in the cultural lexicon that permeates prep school culture, and it exists in the history of Andover as an institution founded and operated for elite education. We must grapple with these questions and face these realities. It is only then that we may begin wearing away the silence surrounding class disparity at Andover.