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Talk, discussion address class at Bowdoin

Richmond ’16 argues that Bowdoin perpetuates wealth inequality

April 21, 2017

Jordan Richmond ’16 returned to campus on Monday to present the results of a study conducted by the team he works with at the Equality of Opportunity Project. The study, which has been covered in The New York Times, the Orient and many other outlets, analyzes colleges’ roles in intergenerational income and mobility using tax data from students born between 1978-1991. Richmond is currently a predoctoral fellow working under a team led by economist Raj Chetty at Stanford University.

Richmond presented data about the socioeconomic distribution of students at Bowdoin and its peer schools—which enroll disproportionate numbers of very wealthy students—and compared it with data from flagship state universities, middle-tier public universities and community colleges.

At Bowdoin, roughly 70 percent of students come from families in the top income quintile (making over $110,000 per year) and 20 percent of students come from families in the top one percent of the income distribution, (making over $630,000 per year). Only 2.6 percent of students come from families in the bottom income quintile (less than $20,000 per year).

At flagship state schools like the University of California, Berkeley or the University of Michigan, income distribution is similarly skewed towards the wealthy. Middle tier state schools like SUNY-Stony Brook enroll students with a more representative income distribution (closer to 20 percent of students from each income quintile) and student bodies at community colleges tend to skew slightly towards the less wealthy.

By coupling data on the breakdown of student demographics and schools with data about what graduates do after college, the authors of the study are able to create a mobility scorecard, or an analysis of how good schools are at elevating students from low income backgrounds to upper income backgrounds.

Richmond told the audience the data indicate that Bowdoin struggles when it comes to income mobility for students from less wealthy families. He argued that Bowdoin perpetuates wealth inequality because it enrolls a disproportionate number of very wealthy students, most of whom earn high incomes after graduating from Bowdoin.

Because 69 percent of Bowdoin students come from the top income quintile—compared to 40 percent at SUNY-Stony Brook—instead of making less wealthy students wealthy, Bowdoin helps the rich stay rich.

More specifically, while Bowdoin and mid-tier public schools like SUNY-Stony Brook are similarly successful at propelling their graduates to incomes in the top quintile of the income distribution, Bowdoin propels more students to incomes in the top one percent. Richmond presented data indicating that 8.5 percent of Bowdoin students make it to the top one percent while less than one percent of students at SUNY-Stony Brook do.

“This was a really fascinating talk,” said Isaac Merson ’17. “It pointed out some serious failures that we have … We have an idea of progress that isn’t necessarily borne out by the facts.”

“Like, we’re an institution of mostly wealthier people, and that could change given certain key steps, like advertising more to students who could come here but don’t know about Bowdoin,” he added. “And I think if we look at our institutional costs, it doesn’t take so much to provide better financial aid.”

In the presentation, Richmond mentioned key steps he believes Bowdoin could take to increase the number of less wealthy students. These included devoting more resources to recruiting less wealthy students and participating in the American Talent Initiative, an organization funded by a consortium of 270 schools across the country that aims to enroll talented lower-income students in colleges by collaborating to raise awareness, set enrollment goals and share information.

An event last Friday moderated by Assistant Professor of Sociology Theo Greene addressed class from another perspective, discussing ways in which class affects students’ experiences on campus, particularly the experiences of less wealthy students. The event was structured as a conversation among students in the audience with Professor Greene posing questions.

Students addressed some of the more difficult questions that arise about class, such as the fear of stigmas that keep both wealthier and less wealthy students reticent about class and the distribution of resources on campus.

“The acquisition of land by the College and new building and renovations I know sparked conversations about what are we paying for when we come here. And by giving us really nice things, who are we excluding from coming here?” said Carly Berlin ’18.

The conversation also addressed ways in which class affects students’ lives, including the ability to go off campus and go out to dinner, differences in academic preparedness and conflicting perceptions of class between wealthy and less wealthy students.

“It was a valuable beginning to a conversation that we have to have about something that’s invisible, that we don’t talk about, but it’s in plain sight,” Greene said after the discussion. “I think students are always the biggest agents of change too—they put pressure on their professors [and] on the administration to help make sure that the experiences of Bowdoin students across the board are the kinds of experiences that students deserve when coming here.”

Because the audience was self-selecting, some students felt that the event did not reach as many students as it could have.

“I think the people who are already coming [to the event] already know how to talk about these issues and those that may be interested in seeing how this works,” said Alexander Sukles ’17. “They may not feel like they have the vocabulary or the training to talk about it and will then be disheartened by not making comfortable or cohesive comments and then they may feel shut down and not come back.”

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