The hardest class I have ever taken at Columbia was FroSci. No, seriously. I went to an all-girl’s high school in Michigan that boasted a history older than that of the United States itself, but that also unfortunately had archaic notions about what a “women’s education” should be. In some ways, I felt that I had tricked the admissions office. My high school transcript lists high grades in honors biology, physics, and chemistry, and yet, had it not been for my friends on my Carman floor, I don’t really think I would’ve passed the class. There is a certain shame in the discovery that you are behind, and it marks you as apart from your friends.

Debora Spar’s comments, while tone-deaf, touch on an interesting subtext. In expressing concerns about the potential deficiencies of public school education, Spar brings up a valid point about the administration’s challenge to educate students who come from all different social strata. Where her comments fall short is that her invocation of the public-private school dichotomy is a thinly veiled way to sidestep a polemical discussion on privilege. It is often tossed around that everyone is a “student first” and that simply getting in is a mark of success—that we are, in some way, equalized.

Though I had to do extra work, my upper-middle-class existence meant that success in FroSci was just a question of buying supplementary materials and taking on one less activity. However, for many, the pressure of financial concerns, family difficulties, and identity become extreme barriers to success. FiveThirtyEight notes that on the national level, 40 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Hispanics graduate from four-year programs within six years compared to 62 percent of their white counterparts. The same article found that graduation rates were also lower among low-income students across races. Though Columbia boasts one of the highest retention rates in the nation, it is likely not immune to the same trends.

There are so many factors that go into success in a classroom beyond simply showing up and doing the work. For example, you’d be hard-pressed to find a student of color who hasn’t had a moment of anxiety around whether or not people will take them as seriously as their white counterparts; or a woman who hasn’t wondered whether participating in class makes others perceive her as pushy or aggressive. The cultural pressures and concerns of the “real world” enter the classroom and often change the way people perform. It is these sort of underlying social pressures that Columbia must do better to ameliorate.

Unfortunately, administrators, such as former President Spar, are not the only ones who seem to sidestep engaging with this issue. On campus, discussions about these issues tend to only take place between people who share these experiences, and thus can commiserate with each other about them. On the other end of the spectrum, very few of us stop to consider the kinds of resources other students require in order to enjoy the same academic experience that we do. Even if it were true that entrance into Columbia is a meritocracy, in which everyone who gains entrance has the ability to succeed, those who will do best will still be those who have the fewest barriers to being a “student first.” The simple fact is that Columbia is not entirely a bubble: It is yet another place in which the importance of the lottery of birth is made evident.

The hardest class I have ever taken at Columbia was FroSci. No, seriously. I went to an all-girl’s high school in Michigan that boasted a history older than that of the United States itself, but that also unfortunately had archaic notions about what a “women’s education” should be. In some ways, I felt that I had tricked the admissions office. My high school transcript lists high grades in honors biology, physics, and chemistry, and yet, had it not been for my friends on my Carman floor, I don’t really think I would’ve passed the class. There is a certain shame in the discovery that you are behind, and it marks you as apart from your friends.

Debora Spar’s comments, while tone-deaf, touch on an interesting subtext. In expressing concerns about the potential deficiencies of public school education, Spar brings up a valid point about the administration’s challenge to educate students who come from all different social strata. Where her comments fall short is that her invocation of the public-private school dichotomy is a thinly veiled way to sidestep a polemical discussion on privilege. It is often tossed around that everyone is a “student first” and that simply getting in is a mark of success—that we are, in some way, equalized.

Though I had to do extra work, my upper-middle-class existence meant that success in FroSci was just a question of buying supplementary materials and taking on one less activity. However, for many, the pressure of financial concerns, family difficulties, and identity become extreme barriers to success. FiveThirtyEight notes that on the national level, 40 percent of blacks and 51 percent of Hispanics graduate from four-year programs within six years compared to 62 percent of their white counterparts. The same article found that graduation rates were also lower among low-income students across races. Though Columbia boasts one of the highest retention rates in the nation, it is likely not immune to the same trends.

Ayo Osobamiro is a senior in Columbia College disappointing her parents by studying history and French literature. You can usually find her on campus schlepping various items for the student productions she works on, cracking cheesy jokes on her Undergraduate Recruitment Committee tours, or binge-watching reality TV in Butler.

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By AYO OSOBAMIRO
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Discourse & Debate: Who's prepared for life at Columbia?

During a family weekend in 2014, Debora Spar worried publicly that students coming from public schools may not be ready for Barnard. Are students with certain backgrounds better prepared for life at Columbia? If so, which types of upbringings are most conducive to success at our university? Why? What can or should the administration do to make Columbia more accessible to all of its students?

There exists a disparity in education. As difficult as it is for me to write this (and it is very difficult, as a student at Columbia College studying philosophy and English whose hair is often in a bun and “both ironically and unironically” quotes Sartre), this question is not of a philosophic nature. There have been scientific examinations about this topic, and they have been well-documented. Our system of education relies on certain metrics, and when it comes time to measure up, the poor are always at a disadvantage. In terms of the type of education Columbia offers, those of us receiving a Pell Grant are behind.

Is this to say there is a disparity in intellect? In creativity? In any capacity whatsoever beside that which standardized tests aim to gauge? Absolutely not. The low-income students at this school are just as capable of putting in the effort necessary, if not more so. We learned strong work ethics—waiting tables, working on the grill at Wendy’s, selling sweaters at JCPenny—to help pay the bills. And we’re not ungrateful. We know that this is an unbelievable opportunity that so few people get to experience where we’re from. But that’s just it—it is so few.

Alexa Roman recently brought light to the fact that 16 percent of Columbia students received Pell Grants last year, while 13.4 percent of the class comes from the top 1 percent. The Pell Grant is usually awarded to students with families in the bottom 40 percent of earners. That means that Columbia’s notion of diversity severely undercuts the concerns of the poor while amplifying the voices of the super-wealthy. This picture becomes more grim if we expand to the bottom 60 percent, who represent only 21.1 percent of Columbia—an even greater loss of proportion.

The poor at Columbia are unprepared because we’ve never been around so few of us before. We knew it was an Ivy League school; we knew the price tag said $75,000; we knew we’d feel ostracized. But this is still more than I could have prepared myself for.

You have to understand that our families weren’t isolated. The strangest thing about being poor at Columbia is not that I have to live a more frugal lifestyle—it’s that no one else does. 60-percent households don’t pop up in 1-percent neighborhoods. We come from 60-percent communities and went to 60-percent schools. We come from resilience and determination and success by relying on one another, not from the cut-throat meritocracy of education that looms ominously over Butler at 4 a.m.

This is where poor kids truly are the worst off—in trying to engage in the competitive stress culture that is all too present at Columbia, developed over years of ambitious education received from coastal prep schools. It’s not the content itself we can’t keep up with, or the social environment; what we’re incapable of participating in is the obsession with doing the most, with being the best, since (at least in my view) most of us are just damn glad we made it this far.

And sure, there are things that you as a fellow student can do to make the poor here feel more comfortable; Alexa’s article is an excellent resource for that type of instruction. But on a macro level, you have to question the University’s commitment to true diversity. The channels into elite education are so entrenched at this point that they cannot be fixed without intervention. Therefore, in the spirit of fairness, Columbia ought to substantially increase the number of students it receives from the bottom 60 percent of earners. The type of representation our group receives on campus is unequal and upsetting and is in need of substantial review.

There exists a disparity in education. As difficult as it is for me to write this (and it is very difficult, as a student at Columbia College studying philosophy and English whose hair is often in a bun and “both ironically and unironically” quotes Sartre), this question is not of a philosophic nature. There have been scientific examinations about this topic, and they have been well-documented. Our system of education relies on certain metrics, and when it comes time to measure up, the poor are always at a disadvantage. In terms of the type of education Columbia offers, those of us receiving a Pell Grant are behind.

Is this to say there is a disparity in intellect? In creativity? In any capacity whatsoever beside that which standardized tests aim to gauge? Absolutely not. The low-income students at this school are just as capable of putting in the effort necessary, if not more so. We learned strong work ethics—waiting tables, working on the grill at Wendy’s, selling sweaters at JCPenny—to help pay the bills. And we’re not ungrateful. We know that this is an unbelievable opportunity that so few people get to experience where we’re from. But that’s just it—it is so few.

Alexa Roman recently brought light to the fact that 16 percent of Columbia students received Pell Grants last year, while 13.4 percent of the class comes from the top 1 percent. The Pell Grant is usually awarded to students with families in the bottom 40 percent of earners. That means that Columbia’s notion of diversity severely undercuts the concerns of the poor while amplifying the voices of the super-wealthy. This picture becomes more grim if we expand to the bottom 60 percent, who represent only 21.1 percent of Columbia—an even greater loss of proportion.

Dan Driscoll is a Columbia College sophomore studying philosophy and English. His interests include professional baseball, Kurt Vonnegut, and the use of the semicolon. Message him on Facebook if you’re interested in playing some Four Square.

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By DAN DRISCOLL
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A women’s college for the one percent.” On a purely statistical basis, such an epithet for Barnard, and by extension for Columbia, does appear accurate: According to the New York Times, while only 5.1 percent of Columbia students come from the bottom 20 percent of incomes, 13 percent come from the top 1 percent alone. An imbalance, therefore, is undeniable.

Statistics demonstrating inequality often trigger a reflex to lament an injustice. Implicit in the use of terms like “underrepresented” and “overrepresented” is the claim that a fair and just representation of any given demographic group in a college would be in proportion with that group’s representation in the general population. In other words, the charge goes that “college admissions are rigged for the wealthy.” So long as there remain any imbalances, I anticipate little assuaging critics.

However, neither Columbia’s admissions standards nor its complacency is to blame for the imbalances we see in our student body’s representation. Indeed, attempts to correct the inequalities society produces—largely out of Columbia’s control—and thereby completely equalize the number of students from each income bracket would prove misguided and injurious.

Ideally, Columbia would more thoroughly contextualize each student’s academic record with their socioeconomic background while searching for the most talented students to fill its halls. Then, theoretically, Columbia could estimate a student’s intrinsic talent and admit them upon this basis; or, in more practical terms, relax criteria for students coming from harsher economic circumstances.

However, the factors determining the degree to which a student realizes their intrinsic talent are infinite and often incalculable. Income, of course, constitutes one of those factors, as does the value a family places on studying, a student’s willingness to study, how much caffeine the student consumed the morning of the SAT; the list could continue indefinitely.

Needless to say, students have no hand in choosing the factors that shape their outcomes up until the time of application. No one can deny, then, that there is an unfair difficulty for some students in achieving the same level of academic success as a wealthy student. But could anybody confidently assert that such a feat is harder than, say, contriving a complex system of evaluation that is capable, with perfect justice and fairness, of considering the innumerable factors that go into academic achievement, such that each bracket on the income scale is proportionately represented in the student population? Attempts to do so would be ludicrous.

This is not to say that contextualization is entirely ineffective. Out of twelve “Ivy Plus” colleges, Columbia ranks third in its share of students from the bottom quintile. If a tempered amount of contextualization—for example, reasonably rewarding admission to a student who overcame financial obstacles over a wealthy student, despite a 100-point difference in SAT scores—introduced some of the economic diversity Columbia does possess, by all means, this is to be commended. The University—and the world—will be better off for recruiting the best talent, even if that talent was not fully realized before coming to Morningside Heights.

If admissions were to extend their assumptions and estimates too far beyond tempered contextualization, there may arise too high a cost for such uncertain benefits. Attempting to fully correct the current disparities by admitting many more low-income students on the basis of unscientific estimations of their talent would mean having to reject students who, in contrast, have certifiably proven themselves capable of balancing a rigorous curriculum, irrespective of wealth. Is Columbia to privilege highly uncertain talent over that which is certain? To me, that hardly seems just. Until we can contrive a science to accurately identify intrinsic talent in any context, some inequalities will inevitably remain. This is not injustice—it’s reality.

A women’s college for the one percent.” On a purely statistical basis, such an epithet for Barnard, and by extension for Columbia, does appear accurate: According to the New York Times, while only 5.1 percent of Columbia students come from the bottom 20 percent of incomes, 13 percent come from the top 1 percent alone. An imbalance, therefore, is undeniable.

Statistics demonstrating inequality often trigger a reflex to lament an injustice. Implicit in the use of terms like “underrepresented” and “overrepresented” is the claim that a fair and just representation of any given demographic group in a college would be in proportion with that group’s representation in the general population. In other words, the charge goes that “college admissions are rigged for the wealthy.” So long as there remain any imbalances, I anticipate little assuaging critics.

Joseph Siegel is a sophomore in Columbia College studying philosophy and economics. He will gladly argue with anyone at anytime about anything, including hand dryers, improper use of automatic doors, and seat-belt laws. Joseph is on the boards of Columbia University College Republicans and Columbia Political Union and resides in Jazz House.

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By JOSEPH SIEGEL

Many note that Columbia does little to help its poor students succeed. Few deny the University’s prohibitive (and ever-rising) tuition and inattention to the social and cultural adjustments poor students must make. But what of Columbia’s neglect of its 1 percent? Rarely do we hear the equally disturbing claim that Columbia fails its wealthy students.

I do not deny the importance of discussing which students are better suited for a productive life at Columbia, but we should also acknowledge the equally important question of which students are better suited for a productive life after Columbia. And to this crucial question, it is clear that wealthy students face a unique challenge.

Professor Mark Lilla once remarked to me in class that during his frequent travels on the New York subway system, he observed that the individuals who proved most generous to the train’s many panhandlers were those who appeared as if they could least afford it. Because they were capable of identifying with the plight of the subway mendicants, these individuals gave more generously than the wealthier denizens of that rat-infested underworld. Insulated from the travails of the disadvantaged, the more privileged passengers felt far less social responsibility for their fellow New Yorkers.

At Columbia, we are given many tools to overcome poverty. We are lectured plenty on the pitfalls of privilege. But while many Columbia students have parents with an access card to 200 West Street, these students hear little about using that privilege to help children attending school on East 128th Street. Sure, professors often preach about social justice and dutifully declare allegiance to the ethic of effective altruism, but claiming fidelity to those abstract concepts amounts to little more than the logical equivalent of telling our students “to make the world a better place.”

In the inaugural edition of this year’s Spectator, the paper released a survey of the incoming freshman class. Among the questions asked of our freshest classmates, one caught my eye: “What extracurriculars do you expect to participate in at Columbia/Barnard?” Of the 530 responses, 293 first-years opted for “Social Justice/Activism.” A total of six selected “Volunteering.” While hundreds of students profess an abstract concern with improving the world, only six students expressed interest in concrete forms of constructive action. This strikes me as a clear case of mistaken priorities. Attending an anti-Trump rally is not a better use of our time than assisting in a Harlem soup kitchen.

Many of Columbia’s wealthy posses noble aspirations; unfortunately, the University neglects to afford them the tools to concretize these ambitions. I am reminded of an acquaintance, a Columbia alumnus and newfound votary of Peter Singer, who, without the slightest trace of irony, defended his decision to forsake a career in public service and instead join the Bridgewater hedge fund on the grounds that he would be better positioned to help the disadvantaged. This seems to be the logical end result of Columbia’s inability to properly instill a sense of communal duty in our university’s elite—an anesthetized and ultimately self-serving form of social responsibility.

If Columbia tasks us with becoming communally-minded citizens, those originating from wealth possess the least conducive background for success upon graduation. How does Columbia offer its St. A’s students direction? Few finance bros are likely to return from an IB networking event with a renewed commitment to volunteerism and civic responsibility. Of course, if a Columbia education merely serves the purpose of making us more attractive job candidates, it may have little to teach its wealthy. But if that is the case, Columbia may as well shutter its gates.

Many note that Columbia does little to help its poor students succeed. Few deny the University’s prohibitive (and ever-rising) tuition and inattention to the social and cultural adjustments poor students must make. But what of Columbia’s neglect of its 1 percent? Rarely do we hear the equally disturbing claim that Columbia fails its wealthy students.

I do not deny the importance of discussing which students are better suited for a productive life at Columbia, but we should also acknowledge the equally important question of which students are better suited for a productive life after Columbia. And to this crucial question, it is clear that wealthy students face a unique challenge.

Benjamin Apfel is a senior studying philosophy at Columbia College. Before arriving at Columbia, he spent a year in an ultra-Orthodox seminary in Jerusalem where he studied Talmudic texts in Yiddish.

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By BENJAMIN APFEL

Debora Spar’s comment brings up an interesting question: Are public school students prepared for the rigor and culture of an Ivy League education? The answer is yes, with the help of their peers and the University.

Despite her terminology, the real problem that Spar seemed to tip-toe around was the socioeconomic status of students. While all students accepted to Columbia and Barnard express exceptionality in academics and extracurriculars, that does not mean that every student comes from the same financial background. About 62 percent of students at Columbia University come from families in the top 20 percent income bracket.

Many public schools across the country have resources that rival those of private schools due to the wealthy areas that supply taxes for those districts. It is easier for students from those types of public schools to socially acclimate to the affluent culture of Columbia than it is for students from less-funded public schools. Using the term “public school students” is reductionary and overlooks the individual experiences and struggles of each student. Because such a high number of students are financially secure at Columbia, it is common to see students walking around campus wearing luxury jackets like Canada Goose, working out at Equinox, and eating out in Midtown weekly. While these activities may not be the University’s intended characteristics for its students, they are definitely staples within the campus community and the undergraduates themselves are often the ones who create the divisions between the wealthy and those who are not. We as students need to recognize our control in building this community and to take responsibility for our actions in order to create an environment that welcomes people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Although low-income students might not wear designer clothing or take weekly trips downtown, they can and should still have the support from their peers and the University to thrive at Columbia and Barnard.

Both colleges could be more cognizant of some of their students’ limited access to resources and publicize financial opportunities on campus more frequently and explicitly. One of the biggest lessons I learned during my years at a private prep school was to always ask questions and seek out options for myself. Many of my friends who graduated from public schools have told me that they were not encouraged to be as inquisitive, and, when they arrived at Columbia, it took them months or even years to find the resources they needed. Alternatives to paying the full price for textbooks, offices that could give them the skills to be more adaptable and receptive to the Columbia and Barnard culture, and the clothing closet that Career & Counseling offers students for interviews are all resources that already exist at Columbia, but they cannot help students who do not know how to access them. Instead of making already disadvantaged students search for opportunities on campus, the University should be more proactive and tailor the way it shares information about resources, perhaps by giving more detailed explanations about what each resource does rather than simply providing the name and phone number of various offices and hoping that students seek out help on their own.

Any student, regardless of public or private education, can excel at Columbia if provided with the right material and support. Columbia admissions chose us because they believed we could succeed at this university, regardless of our backgrounds. To judge and ignore students based on their socioeconomic status or their experiences would be a direct affront to the diverse culture that the institution tries to cultivate and that we as students find so valuable.

Debora Spar’s comment brings up an interesting question: Are public school students prepared for the rigor and culture of an Ivy League education? The answer is yes, with the help of their peers and the University.

Despite her terminology, the real problem that Spar seemed to tip-toe around was the socioeconomic status of students. While all students accepted to Columbia and Barnard express exceptionality in academics and extracurriculars, that does not mean that every student comes from the same financial background. About 62 percent of students at Columbia University come from families in the top 20 percent income bracket.

Elise Fuller is a junior in Columbia College majoring in anthropology. She serves as the Inclusion and Equity Rep for CCSC and the Campus Liaison for Black Students Organization. You can always find her in Cafe East discussing the nuances and diversity of bubble tea flavors.

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By ELISE FULLER

To respond to this installment of Discourse & Debate, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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