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Somewhere in the middle

In what few discussions concerning money I’ve had here, I’ve found it unusually common to hear other students complain that they just didn’t qualify for financial aid, that their parents make a little bit over the cutoff. And I have no sympathy. Your parents make over two hundred thousand dollars, and you’re implying that you’re jealous that Duke pays for so much of my education?

Only once or twice—but no less jarringly—I’ve heard someone refer to the bulk of the Duke student body as middle class. And I can’t help being a little peeved. Unless their definition of middle class is anyone who isn’t in the one percent, that is just not true. Pew defines the U.S. middle-income range as $45,200 to $135,600 for a household of three, in 2016 dollars. While this classification will vary based on location and number of household members, with an average family income of $186,700, middle class students are certainly in the minority at Duke. But we, for some reason, concurrently and opposingly wish to be seen as a down to earth middle-class person and wish to become a wealthy, self-made adult.

Before coming to Duke, I thought of myself as pretty financially well-off. My upper middle class upbringing felt like such a privilege, especially in comparison to the families I grew up around, in an area that can truly call itself middle class, with average household incomes slightly less than the United States average. Nevertheless, ever since I arrived at Duke, I can’t help but to feel financially underprivileged—and then guilty for having such a feeling, considering how advantaged I am in practically any other context. To be clear, I’m not a low income student, but being at Duke sure makes me feel like I am. And if this is how I feel, I can’t even imagine how it must be for people who are legitimately financially disadvantaged, and not just so in the scope of a wealthy university. 

Sometimes I think I’m being a little dramatic and am just playing into the slippery yearning of fulfilling the American Dream, but then I walk around campus and see students wearing $700 Gucci sneakers or hear them talking about buying a plane ticket to visit home for just a single weekend, and I’m reminded of how fundamentally different many of my peers are from me in the ways they think about money. 

It truly fascinates me to see what other students spend money on and how they justify such expenditures. Calling a quick Uber ride, instead of taking a bus or walking, because they have no time. Buying a physical textbook that can be accessed for free online, because it’s a bit easier to read. Going out to eat often with “real money” instead of using their food points, because they’re sick of the on campus options. Consuming alcohol multiple times a week, because they need a break from their stressful lives. And then Venmoing each other for five dollars like it even makes a difference.

Given such ostentatious spending—not least of which the $80,000 cost of attendance— it’s striking how cagey students are about wealth, referring to themselves as “comfortable” or “lucky,” while paying full ticket and reaping all of the benefits of their immense financial privilege and the connections that come with it. When it comes down to it, we all want to feel as though we deserve our place here, and so we focus on what we have done despite our disadvantages, rather than what we have done because of our advantages. We want to be the underdog, when the hard truth is that most of us have had more privileges than barriers in getting here.

But no matter how much you have, somebody else always has more, or so it appears. And thus, the culpability is deflected up the ladder with the pretense that the problem is not one of individual responsibility, but because of “capitalism” or “the one percent.” This helps to assuage the guilt associated with being wealthy, but does nothing to address the rising levels of income inequality across the country that Duke students are both largely shielded from and contribute to.

Coming from an area that was over 97% white, I was so excited to experience the diversity of Duke. I’m happy that I’ve been able to have conversations about issues such as race and politics that in my rural hometown were dismissed in favor of the prevalent conservative, bigoted views. But, I have been flummoxed by the socioeconomic homogeneity of the student body, especially from a school that so much likes to flaunt its financial support—although I suppose those two occurrences are probably linked.

Whenever I do hear conversations about wealth on campus, it’s nearly always in the future tense, referring to how much money we are going to make after graduation because we are at Duke, pursuing one of the five or so lucrative career paths. Maybe because there’s not a large, glowing number over everyone’s heads announcing their family income outright, people can—to a certain extent—ignore class. But this isn’t an excuse for brushing these types of conversations under the mat; we cannot pick and choose which privileges to dissect.

Since so many people here grew up rich, of course they want to stay rich, which means choosing one of those few set paths for wealth. And the people who were born to more—relatively speaking—modest means yearn to climb the meritocratic ladder we were promised. Of course we want to do as good as or better than our parents. But the problem with mobility is that in order for me to be upwardly mobile, someone else has to be downwardly mobile, and I have yet to meet a single person who genuinely wants that. This implicitly and pervasively limits our options for the future to ensure our socioeconomic superiority.

Duke students seem—or at least pretend—to really care about diversity in the sense of race, gender and sexuality while eschewing discussion of socioeconomic class, save for maybe a brief addition to a perfunctory acknowledgement or listing of privileges. But, class is inextricably linked to all of these issues of marginalization. If we can’t even talk about it in the context of our own lives and experiences, how can we expect ourselves to make well-informed decisions on matters of wealth when we go out into the world in positions of real power?


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