A tale of two numbers
The first number is Duke’s estimated annual cost of attendance. The second number is the average annual income of workers in the United States.
Here’s another number: 53 percent.
According to a presentation by Provost Peter Lange to Duke Student Government last Wednesday, that’s the percentage of Duke students who receive no financial aid, putting their parents’ income in the top 5 to 10 percent of U.S. earners.
If you’re on campus in a public place, take a look around. Over half of the people you see are from the top 5 to 10 percent of earners in the U.S. At Duke, for all of the good that we do, for all that I love about his place, a large part of what we do is teaching the wealthy skills that will allow them to stay wealthy.
Now I want to be clear: This column is not encouraging action from Duke. Lowering tuition actually inhibits socioeconomic diversity as it reduces funding for aid programs. And we’re not discriminating based on income in who we admit—we’re need-blind, admitting on merit supplemented by affirmative action policies that promote diversity and control for historic inequalities. Relaxing the standards of admittance for low-income students in order to increase their prevalence on campus would make funding the education we receive impossible—meaning that we would have to sacrifice the things that make us a world-class institution, like small classes and state-of-the-art facilities.
No, this column is aimed at all of us—the likely future 5 to 10 percent of earners, who will also come to possess the power that is wealth’s inevitable companion.
A few weeks ago at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Rick Santorum asked, “Since when in America do we have classes? Since when in America are people stuck in areas or defined places called a class?”
He’s not alone in his thinking.
In an interview with CNN, Jason Long, an economist at the University of Wheaton, stated, “It's clear that Americans still believe that America has exceptional mobility, and that's not true.” It’s “vexing,” he continued, that “lots of people could be systematically mistaken about verifiable, factual information.”
And it is objectively true that in the United States, people are “stuck in areas or defined places called a class” more than they are practically anywhere else in the developed world. According to research from University of Ottawa economist and Russell Sage Foundation Fellow Miles Corak, out of all of the major developed countries, only Italy and the United Kingdom boast lower levels of economic mobility than the United States.
According to a study by Pew Charitable Trust, if you’re born into the lowest income bracket, you have a 70 percent chance of staying there.
Why is economic mobility in this country so low? That question is over-determined.
Look to the fact that education is funded based largely on property taxes, correlating better schools with higher income levels. Look to the fact that eating well and participating in extracurriculars that encourage physical activity is expensive, meaning that lower income children are likely to have poorer nutrition and thus not develop as well. Look to the fact that, given decreasing restrictions on campaign funding and increasing restrictions on voting, the powerful are increasingly the ones who decide whether or not the powerful should stay in power.
After the DSG Senate presentation on tuition, a friend and I watched an episode of House of Cards. The show is about the Washington elite. I recognize these people—or at least I recognize less cartoonishly sadistic versions of them—from people I know at Duke and met at internships over the summer. They talk a certain way; they look a certain way. I recognize their world, too: beautiful spaces, soaring ceilings, historic windows.
In one episode, though, a journalist goes to a trailer park to get information. Everything about the world I recognize from the show and my own life transforms. The marble floors and paneled walls of Congress are replaced by rotted wood and aluminum siding. The woman who answers the door is overweight. She carries a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. She speaks in crass, accented fragments. When asked about the location of a source, the following exchange takes place:
“He got evicted. Shooting off his gun too much in the yard…Skipped town—that’s what I heard. Had a girl living with him. Maybe she knows. Name was Echo.”
“That’s what she went by, at least. Works at the titty bar over on 40.”
“Mhm. Across from the Burger King.”
Watching this, I felt this sense of enormous relief. I was hesitant to admit it, but I was unendingly grateful that place—that miserable place—would never be my life.
My friend turned towards me, apprehensive. “It sounds terrible,” he said, “but I’m so glad I’ll never be lower-class.”
At Duke, we value diversity. It’s easy to look at the different cultures and familial backgrounds and hometowns and mistake ourselves for a fairly reasonable cross-section of the world around us. It’s easy—as Rick Santorum knows—to surround yourself with your own class and then claim that class differences don’t exist.
The cost of attending Duke is $12,532 more than the average American makes in a year. As we go forward into this world with the blessings we’ve all received here—and very likely the blessings we’ve received over our entire lives—we’d do well to remember that.
Ellie Schaack is a Trinity junior. Her column runs every other Monday.