Dissecting Class Diversity: Wealth Inequality Amongst the Student Body

In 2017, an Equality of Opportunity Project study put Tufts among the top 10 elite colleges with families from the highest income brackets. In fact, more Tufts students come from the top 1 percent of earners than the bottom 60 percent. The lack of socioeconomic diversity at Tufts impacts students who are first-generation—those who are the first in their family to attend college—and/or low income (FGLI). Furthermore, it calls to question Tufts’ written commitment to Diversity and Inclusion, to “embrace those at the margins of society” and fostering “an environment that encourages open dialogues across many different perspectives.”

Increased access to higher education across class divides leads to greater socioeconomic diversity on college campuses and more dialogue about class consciousness. At Tufts, the conversation among institutions and their students has expanded to encompass the lived experience of low-income students on elite college campuses and how the university can support these students once they arrive.

Higher Education: Social Reproduction of Inequality or Social Transformation?

Breaking down the socioeconomic distribution of Tufts’ student body, 18.6 percent of students are from families of top 1 percent earners, or those with a total household income of $630 thousand per year, which is almost 10 times more than the bottom 60 percent of earners. Contrastingly, only 11.8 percent of Tufts’ student body comprises the bottom 60 percent of income earners, or those who make $65 thousand per year or less. 77 percent of the student body comes from the top 20 percent of the income earners, and the median family income of a student at Tufts is $224,800. Investigating Tufts’ socioeconomic diversity—or a lack thereof—exposes a student body stratified by wealth and class.

Associate Professor of Sociology Helen Marrow pointed to studies within social psychology and sociology that show evidence where having, generally, greater exposure to people with different backgrounds and histories can help break down stereotypes. This exposure, “increased understanding of [diverse] experiences and… perspective-taking,” she said. These new perspectives can actually “create empathy and drive empathy, and drive cross-group sharing.” However, Marrow said, “[Tufts has] an overrepresentation of people from families in the top income category compared to the lower one. So [is Tufts] class diverse? By income? I mean, no, the data shows no.” To this end, opportunities for cross-sharing and expanding perspectives on class are lost because of the overrepresentation of the higher income brackets at Tufts.

According to Marrow, the relationship between elite colleges and the socioeconomically homogenous populations that inhabit them can be framed in terms of a long-standing debate that asks, “Do [elite institutions] reproduce class stratification in the surrounding society? Do they reform it [or] do they transform it?” Marrow offered, “There’s some of both. Higher elite institutions kind of both chip away and transform some of the surrounding class stratifications.” However, at the same time, “they reproduce class inequality.” Tufts’ lack of socioeconomic diversity, then, implicates the institution and the ways it reproduces class inequality.

Just last year, Tufts received a $25 million challenge grant to expand the number of Pell Grant recipients. Pell Grants—funding that the government allocates to undergraduate students who demonstrate exceptional need and students with undocumented status—are linked to increased accessibility for low-income students to obtain professional degrees. 12 percent of the class of 2026 was eligible to receive Pell Grants, compared to the class of 2025 where only 12.1 percent of students received Pell Grants along with 11.7 percent of the class of 2024. These efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity fall short when compared to other private colleges and universities. Currently, 20 percent and 19 percent of the undergraduate student population receive federal Pell Grants at MIT and Harvard University respectively.

The FGLI Experience Upon Arriving at Tufts: Access and Opportunities

Students feel the impacts of the lack of socioeconomic diversity at Tufts when they arrive on campus. For sophomore Paola Ruiz, an FGLI student, the lack of socioeconomic diversity within the student body has been a constant part of her experience since attending Tufts. She said, “[The lack of socioeconomic diversity] is something that I became so hyper-aware of when I came to Tufts that I wasn’t aware of before. I feel like that’s something that I can’t unsee in every single space [at Tufts].”

An anonymous FGLI sophomore commented on the difficulties of accessing basic resources and necessities at Tufts. In a written statement to the Tufts Observer, she said, “[Tufts] needs to reevaluate how it is currently treating its first-generation, low-income students, especially when it comes to basic necessities like food, housing, and course materials. I don’t appreciate that Tufts continues to accept students without the proper resources to support them.”

To sophomore Nicolas Cordova, being a low-income student affects what resources are available and when. “Being low income does affect your resources that [in turn] affect your educational life… I have to reach out to [professors saying], ‘as a low-income student I can’t afford this’ and ‘is there any way for me to get an access code [for the textbooks]?’And having to do that for every single class is a little bit cumbersome because there’s a stigma having to disclose that.” Tufts’ Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion states methods for where students can obtain access codes for their textbooks, but asks for students to consider “creative solutions” to ensure they have the required material for their courses, despite their reassurance of providing any materials necessary.

Ruiz finds that the lack of access to resources plays a deeper role in her sense of belonging. She said, “I feel like I’m not equipped to be in these spaces. I feel like I don’t have all the tools that everybody else around me has because I don’t have access to all the things people [have] had access to.”

Furthermore, Cordova brought up the difficulties of his transition to Tufts. “Coming here, it made me realize that a lot of people who did come from all these private schools had access to so many resources to prepare them with skills necessary to succeed at higher education.” Because of this, he believes that he must put in additional effort to succeed at Tufts. He said, “That’s something I’ve currently been struggling with, because my school did not have those resources that equipped us with the necessary skills to be able to succeed in higher education.”

Kevin Pham, an FGLI sophomore, also finds that he did not have access to the same opportunities afforded to other students before they arrived on campus. “Seeing everyone go and have [funding for a] debate team, or seeing people who were able to travel for competitions… having these opportunities [prior to college], that is a privilege by itself.”

Tufts Campus Culture Surrounding Socioeconomic Status

Within the broader Tufts student body, however, this experience can create a degree of separation and alienation for FGLI students. The anonymous sophomore explained that some students can be inconsiderate about problems significant to her and other FGLI students “because they are not significant to them. These are small costs from laundry to textbooks, to going out, to getting clothes for formal events, and overall just being at Tufts and wondering if my financial aid will be enough the next year for me to comfortably stay here.”

Because of the social divide these FGLI students experience, some feel there aren’t enough open conversations between FGLI students and the broader student body. Ruiz said, “We talk a lot about how race and ethnicity shape how people find spaces to belong in at Tufts. But I think we [as Tufts students] don’t talk about socioeconomic status and how that also shapes how you show up and how you feel in those spaces.” While wealth plays a role in a students’ social orientation, socioeconomic diversity can work to bridge the divides between students’ various backgrounds. In Ruiz’s experience, an environment that lacks socioeconomic diversity, such as Tufts, further socially divides the student body.

The anonymous sophomore described experiencing, “a lot of implied biases [about the FGLI experience] that students come into Tufts with and implied knowledge that makes the experience and path to success really tumultuous at times.” This student finds that while she is proud to be first-generation, she wonders, “if people outside the community can move past it and consider other things that I bring to the table.”

Resources Currently Available to FGLI Students

Concerns over socioeconomic diversity have been a historic battle for Tufts’ students, but the institution has been receptive in implementing programs that facilitate the transition to college for FGLI students. For example, BLAST, or Bridge to Liberal Arts Success at Tufts, began operating in 2012 and consists of a six-week summer program prior to students’ first year at Tufts. Tufts also offers BEAST, Building Engagement and Access for Students at Tufts, which is a free, four-day pre-orientation program for FGLI students.

Pham found his way to navigating Tufts as an FGLI student through BLAST. “For me and other members of my cohort,” Pham said, “we were really well supported.” However, Pham recognized, “There are so many other students who didn’t have these opportunities because of the limited number of people allowed into these bridge programs.”

The FIRST Resource Center serves as a primary support system and is available for all FGLI students. Created in 2018, the FIRST Center provides necessary financial knowledge and access to opportunities to empower FGLI students and works to foster communities through Tufts’ partnership with Questbridge and on-campus groups like the First-Gen Collective FIRST Advising Seminar, and United for Immigrant Justice Organization.

Sophomore Ayomide Olyede, a Peer Leader at the FIRST Resource Center, said, “I love working with the First Resource Center… It is really nice being around people who have had similar experiences to you, especially at an institution like Tufts, where you can feel kind of on the outs.”

The anonymous sophomore said, “[The FIRST Center] was actually one of the reasons I applied… I thought it was really cool to have a physical space on campus.”

Cordova feels Tufts has succeeded in creating a comfortable social environment to help connect FGLI students because the FIRST Center excels at curating events, “to get to know the [FGLI] community.” Cordova finds that he has had relatively good experiences at Tufts being low-income, and “80% of [my good experiences] come from the FIRST Resource Center. I’m very grateful that that’s something that we have on campus, and it’s something that a lot of schools don’t have.”

Additional monetary resources for FGLI students can be found through student-managed programs and funds. For example, student organizations have the option to call upon the Tufts Community Union for financial support for club-sponsored events that require members to pay to participate.

Improving the FGLI Experience at Tufts

Within the university, there is an ongoing conversation as to how they can be better supported by Tufts. The anonymous sophomore said, “There’s a lot more that institutionally could be done with the FIRST Center… I would say that the students in the community are most responsible for providing that support to each other and less and less Tufts is [the one providing support].”

Pham similarly acknowledged that, “if you’re not actively seeking [resources available to FGLI students], it’s really hard to be aware of the resources that the FIRST Center offers.” This places an additional burden on FGLI students to seek out scarce resources. Pham adds that he’d like to see more support for staff members at the FIRST center. He says, “staff members at DSDI centers such as FIRST [have seen] a lot of turnover lately in this regard, which harms everyone involved, especially when you don’t feel represented at Tufts, faculty-wise.”

Oloyede said, “The FIRST Center has so many ideas and ways to help students… [but] they do not always get the opportunity… There is not enough outside funding dedicated to bridging the gap and giving these students the college experience they deserve.”

Beyond improving the efficiency of the FIRST Center, there are other approaches that would better the FGLI experience. The anonymous sophomore hopes to see Tufts commit to more well-rounded support for their FGLI community and students. She suggested, “Tufts [should] do very specific things like [having] a match grant up to $25 thousand from a foundation for accepting FGLI student enrollment, and I would want to know what Tufts is planning on doing with the grant, how it’s going to better the FIRST Center and support it at a time of transactional leadership.”

Tufts could also dedicate more resources for mental health that are intended specifically for FGLI students. Pham said Tufts can improve the experiences of its FGLI students by providing “more support for CMHS. Hire more staff, make booking an appointment more accessible, as many FGLI students struggle with the transition [to college].”

In general, more transparency from Tufts on issues pertaining to the FGLI community would benefit students. “Trying to be less performative in their actions is something I’d like to see. Being more transparent in their decision-making process,” said Pham.

Improving the FGLI student experience at Tufts can aid in establishing a stable foundation in which their academic and social lives are supported and made equal with everyone on campus. Ruiz said it “is such an embodied experience that other people don’t experience,” thus change must be enacted by centering the perspectives and experiences of FGLI students that must be lived to truly be understood.