An inability to afford five round-trip flights and having to subsist off of salami and cheese sandwiches for a few weeks turned out to be a disadvantage in the college transfer process. I first discovered my innate misfortune, which I had previously been ignorant to, during my remote interview for Wesleyan.
In the most nonchalant way possible, my interviewer insisted that I fly out to all five colleges that I applied to. How else would I be able to tell which schools I liked or demonstrate my interest? I explained that I couldn’t because I didn’t receive help from my parents and the money in my bank account wouldn’t quite cover five round-trip flights. She took a sip of her coffee, nodded understandingly, and reasserted that I really must visit all of the colleges I applied to because it’s such an integral part of the process.
I wondered whether she had misheard me or just elected to ignore what I’d said.
About a month later, I found myself on Wesleyan’s campus, my bank account drained after purchasing a round-trip ticket from Oklahoma to Connecticut. I had convinced myself on some level that she was right about demonstrating my interest. While I knew I couldn’t afford to visit every university I’d applied to, I figured splurging on my top choice would be worth it if it only gave me that much more of an edge, desperate as I was to leave the downtrodden town I grew up in.
My overnight hosts picked me up on the steps outside of the admissions office building and ushered me to a dorm room that looked like it had spontaneously generated from an amalgamation of Pinterest trends. I could see why they had been picked to host overnights. They were well groomed and friendly and infinitely helpful.
They also averted their eyes when I explained over dinner at Usdan that I’d eaten nothing except salami and cheese sandwiches for the past two weeks. I elaborated that I hadn’t been able to make it to cafeteria hours because of my work hours and because I was unwilling to spend the money I earned on real food. Once I finished my sob story, they switched the topic. What seemed like a normal topic of conversation to me had likely left them in an uncomfortable position, unsure of how to respond. I felt as though I’d done something wrong.
On the way out of Usdan, one of the girls made a passing comment about how she didn’t want to go to the grocery store. She grabbed a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread, stuck it in her bag, and went down the steps.
At the bottom of the stairs a few people were urging passerby to sign a petition to rehire a member of the janitorial staff that had recently been let go. My host signed the petition. On the way back to the dorms, she gave me a talk about classism and justice for low-wage workers. The irony of the situation was not lost on me.
Another month later, back at home, I received an email from one of the colleges I applied to, which said that they wouldn’t consider my application if I didn’t fill out my financial aid within the week. The email felt like a punch in the gut. I hadn’t known when financial aid was due, and I certainly didn’t know what I needed to submit. The schools I applied to, Wesleyan included, hadn’t provided information about the process on the transfer application page.
As someone who had only just figured out that need-based aid existed and that private colleges were within my grasp, the whole process was a mystery to me. It seemed to me as though they just expected me, by some stroke of divine enlightenment, to know what the hell was going on.
I filled out my FAFSA in a panic, only to find out days later that I had to fill out CSS and discover all of the creative ways it might also screw me over. I discovered that I had to acquire somehow my parents’ tax returns, which was slightly difficult since I had a rocky relationship with my family. On top of that, I needed to fill out a noncustodial waver for my biological dad, who I hadn’t seen in over a year.
I managed to scrounge up a letter from a pastor confirming that my dad was, indeed, a horrible person, only for Boston College to send me an email explaining why the information that I provided wasn’t good enough. The next day, I had to hunt down police reports and DHS documents to prove that I wasn’t in any position to attain my father’s tax information. Each time I completed a piece of the puzzle another thing cropped up that I didn’t understand.
I had no guidance, since I’m the first person in my family to attend somewhere that’s not a public university in backwoods Oklahoma. I also didn’t have the immediate access to my family’s information that these colleges assumed I would.
While this might seem anecdotal, all it takes is a quick look at Wesleyan’s class profiles to unmask the discrepancy between the economic classes represented on campus. The majority of Wesleyan students, both white students and students of color, are from the upper classes, with 70 percent of the student body coming from the top 20 percent and a measly 4.5 percent coming from the bottom 20 percent, according to the New York Times.
It’s not only income discrepancy that makes admissions an elitist process. About half of Wesleyan’s students come from private high schools. This is not only indicative of wealth, but also of access to information, tutoring, and assistance that gives students an edge in applying to college and a more thorough understanding of the application process than their public school counter parts.
Legacies, which make up roughly 21 percent of Wesleyan’s student body, add another layer to the problem by ensuring that the elitist cycle is continued from generation to generation. Rather than investing in lower income students in hopes that they’ll eventually become donors, universities are more apt to pander to previous alumni by admitting their children due to a “positive correlation between alumni donation and legacy admissions,” according to The Harvard Crimson.
The final, and often overlooked, layer of discrimination is based on region, with students from the East and West coast admitted at much higher rates than students from the South and Midwest, which are not only substantially poorer regions of the country but also tend to have a poorer quality of education.
Of course, admissions officers, as well as individuals who attend top universities, aren’t likely to be aware of the difficulties that lower income students face because they’re more used to dealing with, and pandering to, the average student.
Classism in the application process is subtle. My interviewer assumed I should have enough resources to visit my colleges. And my overnight host assumed that taking a loaf of bread in front of someone who was struggling to pay for meals wasn’t a big deal. And the colleges I applied to assumed that I would understand the application and financial aid process and that I would have familial support that I simply didn’t.
It wasn’t intentionally malicious. Rather, it operated based on assumptions, assumptions which have ingrained themselves into the unconscious of the process in much the same way that classist assumptions ingrain themselves into the unconscious of interpersonal interactions.
Both students and institutions can take huge steps in the right direction by challenging these assumptions. Students, by interacting with and attempting to understanding the problems of their low-income peers, can come to a better understanding of issues outside of their own class and help advocate for more inclusive policies on campus.
Institutions, by making themselves aware of how elitist mentalities isolate the majority of potential applicants, can modify their admission processes to be more inclusive.
I hope that, in the future, the subtle classist mentality that undercuts both individual interactions and institutional processes is weeded out and that an inability to afford five round-trip flights and having to subsist off of salami and cheese sandwiches for a few weeks won’t be a disadvantage in the transfer process.
Katie Livingston is a member of the class of 2021 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.