Editorial | Impoverished at Penn, part two: reconsidering culture

It's time for students to take responsibility for wealth's divisive effects at Penn

· December 10, 2013, 5:55 pm   ·  Updated December 11, 2013, 12:53 am

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This is one part of a two-part editorial series on wealth and culture at Penn. (Part one.)

Forbes’ recent article about wealth and privilege at America’s “richest colleges” hit home for many of us.

We read the article, finding the mentions of $300 textbooks and hunting for business-professional clothing all too relevant. We shared the article on Facebook and Twitter, praising its depiction of the uncomfortable situations that arise when wealth is so much of a norm that it almost goes unspoken. We were struck by the obvious difficulties those in less economically privileged circumstances face, like not being able to afford a trip for an interview, and the subtler ones, like being afraid to leave clothes in the laundry room.

We’ve certainly been willing to acknowledge the truths in the article. But we’ve been less willing to look critically at aspects of Penn culture that create these social divisions and discuss actions we can all take to promote discussion about money at Penn.

There is no shortage of conspicuous displays of wealth on campus — well-known stories of fraternities recruiting by zip code or sending pledges on expensive New York City scavenger hunts on a whim come to mind. So does an email chain of an off-campus fraternity that was leaked to Under the Button, which featured a photo of an alcohol bill totaling over $1,500 dollars. “An Ivy League education,” the caption read, “priceless.”

Really? That’s interesting, because the last time we checked, the price was $61,800 per year, over $10,000 above the median household income in the United States.

It can be tempting to write this type of ignorance off as something relegated to a few particularly ostentatious displays. But it’s equally important for us to recognize the less in-your-face aspects of Penn life that are often taken for granted — things like Restaurant Week, late nights (or midmorning brunches) at Tap House and spring break getaways to Miami Beach.

It’s important for us to recognize that these activities — even the ones we perceive as harmless regular occurrences and decidedly unextravagant — all require a significant amount of spending money, and the extent to which we allow them to define our relationships and free time creates a culture where the ability to spend money is expected in order to participate in the social scene. At a certain point, if you can’t afford Restaurant Week or downtowns, it’s easy to find yourself drifting away from those who can.

As Maggie McGrath, the author of the Forbes article and a 2011 College graduate, said, things like “just wanting to fit in,” or “not [wanting] to draw that sort of attention to yourself” discourages people from having a constructive discussion about money. Furthermore, even those comfortable sharing their financial situations can find it “difficult to ask for help [covering expenses].”

Given the culture we’re complacent to — one that makes spending $1,500 on alcohol worthy of no more than an offhand statement; that makes not being able to afford six-dollar beers at Tap (much less tickets to Florida for break) seem outlandish or even shameful; that makes going to Wawa every night seem like a trivial expense; that expects students to spend $35 (more like $45, given tax and tip) with their friends Restaurant Week — it’s hardly surprising that dialogue is so discouraged.

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Twenty-six percent of graduating seniors in the class of 2012 disagreed with the statement that “students here are respected regardless of their economic or social class,” a higher percentage than for similar questions regarding race, religion or sexual orientation. At a University that prides itself on having a diverse and respectful student body, this is unacceptable.

Perhaps it’s time we reconsidered some of the defining aspects of our culture — to replace the litany of BYOs with occasionally home-cooked potlucks or downtowns with more low-key events.

It’s not enough to expect the University to place more of an emphasis on the socioeconomic diversity of the student body. We will not be able to create a culture where students feel comfortable talking about money until we acknowledge the extent to which we’ve perpetuated the current environment.

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