Class Dismissed?

Students at Bryn Mawr say economic class is noticeable, but doesn’t define the school

By Kady Ashcraft

Two girls sit around the television, late Thursday night, in a common room in one of Bryn Mawr College’s dorms. They are watching reruns of MTV’s “Sixteen and Pregnant” and commenting on the poor parenting skills of the young reality TV mothers.

They are both lounging in sweat pants, with their glasses on after taking out their contacts. One of the girls is on significant financial aid and another one’s parents paid for her entire four years at Bryn Mawr with a single check.

A survey taken of Bryn Mawr College students that showed a similar wide range of incomes: About 29 percent of the students who responded come from households with income of $50,000 a year; while 11 percent came from households earning over $150,000, 60 percent fall between these two benchmarks. Clearly, there is a spread of wealth at Bryn Mawr.

But does this range of income affect how students interact with one another? Is there a stigma to how little, or how much wealth a student comes from? Would a student choose a friend based on economic class?

The resounding answer is, “Not really.”

The survey sent out to Bryn Mawr students had a 12 percent response rate, a significant sample of the 1,200 who attend the Main Line school.

The survey said that while 66 percent wished there was more discussion of class on campus, 84 percent agreed that economic class did not determine social groups.

Most students who supplied an additional comment noted that friend groups tended to be based on extracurricular activities and academic interests.

In short, Bryn Mawr College is a class conscious community but the issue of socioeconomic class is not a divisive one. While two thirds of the students said socioeconomic class was a topic that should be discussed more, the majority also said there were more significant factors in creating and maintaining friendships. Among the items mentioned: athletics, academic pursuits, extracurricular activities, and even interest in reality TV shows appear to be more deciding of friend groups and cliques

“Class is a lot less of an issue than I expected,” said Maria McGurrin, a freshman from outside of Baltimore, Md.

McGurrin’s current roommate is a member of the POSSE mentorship and scholarship program on campus. McGurrin noticed that her roommate often confided in other members of the POSSE program instead of working

with dorm leadership. POSSE recruits diverse students from public city high schools (from the same cities) with great leadership potential. Many of them come fromn low-income families.

McGurrin said that her financial aid package was a factor in choosing to attend Bryn Mawr. Part of her package was work-study which allows for work payment up to around $2,000 a year. The only job open to freshman is working in the dining halls.

McGurrin works in Haffner Dining Hall for about five hours a week. The only disadvantage she feels is that she is unable to participate in some clubs or sports because the work shifts revolve around meal times and conflict with club meetings.

According to the Bryn Mawr website, 72 percent of full-time students receive some sort of financial aid (loans, grants, work study opportunities.) This means that nearly one out of four students do not receive any aid and are paying in full the roughly $52,000 a year for tuition and extra expenses.

Nevertheless, there is still a range of wealth amongst the students, from the lower-middle class to the exuberantly wealthy. Most students fall somewhere in the middle. Though, out of the people interviewed, few had a clear idea of how many students fit into which socioeconomic strata, or which way, if any, the wealth skewed.

“You can tell in the way people dress, their jewelry, their bags,” said Manya Steinfield, a senior from Malborough, Mass., in being able to point out those with wealth. “For example, I have a laptop and if someone does not have a laptop, that is clearly making a divide for them.”

Steinfield, a Psychology major and education minor, falls in the middle of the spectrum, receiving around $17,000 in financial aid each year. She and her parents are contributing to the remaining costs.

“I needed financial aid to go to college, in general, but it was not the deciding factor in the end,” she explained. Her financial aid package does significantly help her parents pay for her education, though.

According to the survey, 27 percent of students receive a financial aid packet of more than $46,000 a year, while 11 percent received less than $10,000 (including those who receive nothing.) Most students, like Steinfield, fall somewhere in between.

From the survey, a majority of students, 82 percent, have parents who are helping pay the cost. Forty six percent said that they were contributing as well.

While Steinfield did not choose her friends based on their socioeconomic class, she feels that they gravitated toward one another because of shared experiences. Class is not fully indicative of all experiences, but it can lead people to hold similar ones.

“None of our families are struggling to get by, “Steinfield said. “But none of us are going on elaborate vacations.”

“We’ve all had some struggle with money at some point so we understand that aspect.”

This mutual understanding can be comforting for many students. McGurrin felt the same way.

Steinfield, like McGurrin met many of her friends through working at the dining hall. Both dining halls on campus are staffed by student workers and fulltime workers. McGurrin feels there is a friendly dynamic between the two groups.

Most Bryn Mawr students work — 83 percent of respondents have a paying job on campus. The majority of them work six to 10 hours a week. When asked if wealthier students generally do not work a job on campus, 44 percent agreed while 57 percent disagreed. Commenters on the question cited non-financial aid students holding jobs for extra spending money.

Earlier in the year, a group of staff workers in Bryn Mawr’s Admissions Office took on a project interviewing staff workers in various departments on their perceptions of class on campus. What they found was quite similar to the feelings of the student body,

Stephanie Wujcik, the Assistant Director of Residential Life, and one of the heads of the project, relayed that most staff members in dining and facilities were very fond of the friendships they held with the students on campus. She continued to explain that while staff members are conscious of class, and aware that they are often of a lower economic class than the students, it does not negatively affect their relationships or their jobs.

Steinfield now works at The Thorne School, a preschool associated with and run by Bryn Mawr’s psychology department. She works in the language enrichment and speech therapy program within the school.

The families are “mostly incredibly wealthy” Steinfield said. “Since the program runs from 12:30 PM to 3:15 PM, parents have to be able to pick their kid up in the middle of the day. It is most stay-at-home moms or nannies that pick the children up.”

Since she has started working there, she has become very aware of the upper class benefits these children are growing up with. Their parents are able to afford speech therapy, childcare, and the time it takes to attend an elite preschool.

“I recognize that these kids are incredibly privileged and they can get pulled out of school to go to Disney Land,” she said. “That was not my life.”

Outside of Bryn Mawr’s campus, class distinctions are much more prevalent. Students like Steinfield recognize the disparities and bring that knowledge back onto campus with them.

Most people had a difficult time defining ‘class.’ Some saw it strictly as the amount of money one’s family has. Others include levels of education, resources available to individuals, and living situations.

“Cultural capital” is the term that Steinfield used in describing what she felt was an unwritten prerequisite of every student in the Bryn Mawr community.

“I think Bryn Mawr in itself has already weeded out a lower class,” Steinfield explained. She felt that by knowing what Bryn Mawr is and attending a small liberal arts school, someone automatically fits in a higher socioeconomic class than what a larger population might label ‘lower class.’

“Bryn Mawr draws a class distinction in their applicant pool and by who even comes onto campus,” Steinfield continued.

Even more strongly, students felt that friendships were not formed over similar economic situations, stating that people tended to bond over “lifestyle and habits.”

McGurrin agreed with that notion, but did note that there were two girls she knew who she felt became friends because they were both wealthy.

Most people knew of a few situations where people did connect and they both happened to be from upper-class backgrounds. But, as mentioned earlier, they shared experiences where the underlying factor was wealth, not wealth itself.

McGurrin was pleasantly surprised at the transition from her high school to college.

“Here it was a little less liberal than my high school,” she explained. McGurrin went to what she called a “a very liberal, all kinds of minds school.” She anticipated that there would be much wealthier students on campus and that class differences would be much more apparent, .

She has only really noticed tension in some of her classes, when discussing issues of poverty and welfare. The same goes for Steinfield, who described a class where a girl made a misconceived assumption that everyone in the class was from an upper-class background.

“People were quick to set her straight,” Steinfield said.

The tensions in the classrooms are mostly coming from ignorance and malice. Once discussion opened up about class, both Steinfield and McGurrin both mentioned that the situations eased.

Maria McGurrin does not seem fazed by the wealthy girls on her hall or her roommate seeking comfort from a group of friends from her hometown. She is more interested in joining clubs and exploring what is available to her through Bryn Mawr.

Manya Steinfield has been on the field hockey team for four years and is now captain. She spent her freshman and sophomore years on the track team, and volunteers her time as the public relations representative for the Athletics Association.

“I am an athlete extraordinaire” she joked. She spends a lot of her time with other team mates and they share a common love for field hockey and an active physical lifestyle. That is what defines her and not her financial aid package.