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Second Class Citizens

Opinion | November 25, 2013

“Tufts, like almost every other elite college and university in the country, has published costs of attendance for its undergraduate and graduate programs that exceed the annual income of most U.S. households.”
– Tufts Strategic Plan, 2013-2023

The quote above was included nonchalantly in Tufts’ recently finalized Strategic Plan. It came without mention of this concept’s absurdity, without consideration that this ought not be the status quo, without understanding the effect that the banality of this assumption has on students from those households. This normalization of the divide between elite colleges and the low-income population leads us down dangerous roads: through this phenomenon, the university enforces mandatory luxuries on a population that largely cannot afford them. It endorses these luxuries, both explicitly and tacitly, to such degree that it raises the question of whether Tufts is engaging in administrative classism.

Before delving deeper, it’s necessary to issue a disclaimer: I don’t think that this classism is the administration’s intent. Tufts exists within the context of similar practices employed by similar colleges and its actions often serve the purpose, both stated and likely actual, of trying to provide the most complete liberal arts education possible. However, this vision of education comes with a vision of the Tufts student as someone who can afford to spend ten grand more on annual tuition than most families will earn that entire year. And this vision leads Tufts down dangerous paths to policies that continually perpetuate this problem.

The Tufts residency requirement may be the most glaring of these policies. Tufts students are required to spend at least eight full-time semesters on campus in order to graduate, regardless of the number of credits earned. This means that even if a student completes all of his or her distribution and foundation requirements, and finishes up a major (or two or three), he or she must keep spending as much as $60,000 a year to receive a degree he or she has already completed.

It is not my goal here to criticize this policy for its greed, but to point out that this rule is constructed with a certain image of a Tufts student in mind. The Tufts Bulletin attempts to provide reasons for why these eight semesters are crucial. “Students need time,” it says, “to reflect on and absorb knowledge.” It says this as if we couldn’t have absorbed extra knowledge in our previous semesters’ classes, as if we couldn’t reflect on that knowledge after graduation; as if the stress of spending the equivalent of three new-car price tags wouldn’t impact our ability to reflect and absorb knowledge.

In explaining this policy, they also emphasize the importance of being “enriched by study in a foreign country,” a luxury that doesn’t make sense for many. It suggests that students use their extra time “to survey the cultural, recreational, and educational opportunities of Boston and New England.” For only a $60,000 surcharge, Tufts students aren’t supposed to worry about how to pay rent or buy groceries or pay off a continuingly mounting load of student debt, but are instead supposed to travel around New England, going apple-picking and ice-skating and horseback riding. I don’t mean to criticize these activities, but rather to point out the ridiculousness of spending a year’s tuition—what it would cost to go apple-picking 2,500 times, and come back with 150,000 apples—so that students have the opportunity to explore New England’s recreational activities.

The residency requirement has exceptions, of course. A student can get out of it with 5 AP credits, for example. This seems like a reasonable rule until you consider the fact that of the almost a million people who took an AP exam last year, only a quarter of them were low-income students. Of those, less than half scored above a grade of three or above on any AP they took in high school. Tufts only accepts grades of four and five for credit. According to the Southern Education Foundation, in the United States, 48 percent of public high school students are defined as low-income students who qualified for reduced price lunches. The vast majority of these students never had access to these tests and even fewer were given anywhere near the level of preparation that students at affluent schools, particularly private schools, received. The result: At Tufts, the official, carefully-crafted, and mechanically-applied policy only allows a student from an upper-class family to graduate early.

This isn’t the only troubling policy. All first- and second-year students are required to live in Tufts housing and purchase Tufts meal plans. This means that even though the housing costs at Tufts are above the average cost of a room rental in the area, students are required to live on-campus. It means that Tufts has officially banned the ramen lifestyle that can help keep college students out of massive debt. The only way out of these requirements is by living somewhere like a fraternity house, paying dues and opting out of the meal plan by, such as in the case of DTD, having a private chef. Once again, having the finances to pay for such luxuries is the only way out of sending money to Tufts.

Beyond the mandatory, Tufts continues this trend with its image of the Tufts student. Tufts encourages things like community service, study abroad, and entrepreneurship in admissions materials, mission statements, and strategic plans as formalized goals for Tufts students, all of which require money. To expect students to be able to spend their time on the community rather than on feeding themselves, or to be able to travel internationally rather than worry about the cost of getting to school at the beginning of the year, or to be able to raise capital for a venture instead of rent shows the depth of Tufts’ lack of connection to its low-income population.

In order to participate at a high level in Tufts extracurriculars, in a system where getting the TCU credit card takes almost as long as getting reimbursed for personal purchases, one has to have constant access to liquid personal funds, meaning that succeeding at Tufts is prohibitively expensive for many.

This isn’t theoretical. Low- and lower-income students exist at Tufts, even if the university has a way of sweeping them under the rug. Of this year’s freshman class, 39 percent are receiving need-based aid. It should be noted that this means that not everyone at Tufts is paying $60,000 a year. Still, Tufts’ pledge to meet “demonstrated need” stands on shaky ground. About a third of aid is coming in the form of long-term loans, and few students receive full rides. That means that students who could ill afford it took on upwards of 22 million dollars in loans last year. And for anyone with affluent parents who aren’t paying for their education, the financial concerns are just as real, but without aid. According to TCU surveys, 42.5 percent, nearly half, of Tufts students were worried about their parents’ ability to financially support their school year. Of people who knew somebody who transferred, 34.5 percent of those friends did so for financial reasons, and those are just the cases that people knew about.

The school is not in dire straits. Tufts brought in $431,000,000 in just tuition and fees last year, which was less than half of its total revenue. The year that Larry Bacow retired as president, he took home $2,223,752. That same year, even though he started halfway through, President Monaco took home $376,412. He was not alone. The Deans of Engineering, Linda Abriola, and Arts & Sciences, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, made $327,491 and $351,917 respectively. That year, Tufts also spent $402,965 on legislative lobbying. Without that lobbying, the institution could have provided a full ride for a student with money to spare.

But these aren’t the discussions that Tufts has. Outside of general platitudes about diversity and equality, Tufts keeps discussion—real discussion—about the socio-economics of its students away from the public roundtable. In that TCU survey, Tufts scored worse on its ability to “prepare its students to handle issues of discrimination and equality pertaining to socioeconomic background” than it did any other issue, with less than a third of student respondents agreeing that Tufts had prepared them to talk about issues of socio-economic inequality.

The idea that Tufts wants to provide a well-rounded liberal arts education is a commendable one. Encouraging students to reflect on knowledge, travel globally, and serve the community—these are admirable goals. But when these options are only available, are only possible, to upper-class students, when the majority of society is prevented from even attempting to access them, then perhaps the goal becomes less admirable. When the image of a Tufts student, as decreed by the administration, can only match a member of the upper class, then perhaps that image needs to change. When there isn’t meaningful discussion between students and administrators, when platitudes pass for equality and promises pass for diversity, then perhaps that discussion needs to happen.