Sometime before college, my mom and I were invited to an admissions event in Manhattan, and the first thing I noticed was a tree in the lobby of the apartment. I was dumbfounded. Understand that this wasn’t a small, potted tree. I specifically remember it being as high as a column. Coming from a household that wouldn’t qualify as upper-class, I was struck by what was possible in terms of internal home decor. For two months, I wanted to live in a nice apartment with a flora centerpiece.

I knew the host of this event was probably leaps and bounds richer than me, like the people I interacted with for six years before college, and probably will for a long time afterward––and despite that, I remained attached to the classically defined American dream. It didn’t matter if half the student population could outspend my deepest spending binge while “budgeting.” I would get to where they’re at, especially with a Columbia degree on my resume.

I can’t say I’ve faced many indiginities in trying to keep the faith. It’s more a game of limitations. The richer students can conquer rising subway fares by taking Ubers downtown, attend all the arts events they want at Lincoln Center, and fly on expensive spring break trips. I don’t have money, so I don’t get to be a magician who can grow a tree in my house. Imagine having chronic Fear of Missing Out, but instead, you’re forced to miss out and no one cares simply because “We live in a society” and society has dues.

Does anyone remember when John Oliver argued that the American dream was like thinking you would definitely win the lottery, when in reality your low odds of getting into an Ivy League university were better than your odds of actually winning? The analogy was definitely more forced than that––the point was that America is supposedly a nation of winners and soon-to-be winners, but the “soon-to-be” winners never win. Now, as a Columbia student, I have a chance to be a soon-to-be winner who could actually win. It’s easier to be aspirational and imagine the Manhattan apartment with the flora centerpiece after you somehow, against the odds, win the poor man’s lottery. It’s easier to accept the structures that keep all your friends waiting for the right lotto number when you know you’re fine. And, to a certain extent, that’s the point.

However, this is where the 21.1 percent of Columbia students in the bottom 60 percent of earners carry a strange burden. The American dream may be a uniting message, but it’s also a dream you dream alone. You don’t have to think about the people who don’t rise with you. I mean, what are you going to do, give up your spot? That’s crazy. Absurd. Must we sacrifice our own social mobility to make a point about the lack of social mobility for everyone we grew up with? I’m not willing to leave the University as part of a national strike against national inequality. It’s an ingenious trap when you think about it. Almost magical.

I want to reread this article 30 years from now, when I have my own Manhattan apartment with a flora centerpiece in the living room. I want to have enough money to retire comfortably but keep coming in to work regardless. I want to see all the new culture off Broadway without breaking my bank account. But most importantly, I think, I want all the time I put in to mean something for the person who can’t be here, who’s still dreaming and aspiring but hasn’t gotten a lucky number. If that’s who I am in 2048, all the angst I feel surrounded by the tremendously wealthy would be worth it.

Sometime before college, my mom and I were invited to an admissions event in Manhattan, and the first thing I noticed was a tree in the lobby of the apartment. I was dumbfounded. Understand that this wasn’t a small, potted tree. I specifically remember it being as high as a column. Coming from a household that wouldn’t qualify as upper-class, I was struck by what was possible in terms of internal home decor. For two months, I wanted to live in a nice apartment with a flora centerpiece.

I knew the host of this event was probably leaps and bounds richer than me, like the people I interacted with for six years before college, and probably will for a long time afterward––and despite that, I remained attached to the classically defined American dream. It didn’t matter if half the student population could outspend my deepest spending binge while “budgeting.” I would get to where they’re at, especially with a Columbia degree on my resume.

I can’t say I’ve faced many indiginities in trying to keep the faith. It’s more a game of limitations. The richer students can conquer rising subway fares by taking Ubers downtown, attend all the arts events they want at Lincoln Center, and fly on expensive spring break trips. I don’t have money, so I don’t get to be a magician who can grow a tree in my house. Imagine having chronic Fear of Missing Out, but instead, you’re forced to miss out and no one cares simply because “We live in a society” and society has dues.

Ufon Umanah is the investigations editor for The Blue and White, an undergraduate magazine of Columbia University. You can follow him at @ufonumanah on Twitter after he finishes midterms.

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By UFON UMANAH
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Discourse & Debate: How do Columbia’s wealth demographics affect student life?

According to a 2017 New York Times report, 13.4 percent of Columbia’s undergraduate students come from the top 1 percent of household income brackets in the U.S., and 21.1 are in the bottom 60 percent of household income brackets. What does it mean for learning inside and outside the classroom that the demographics of the Columbia community are so vastly disproportionate to the demographics of the country?

Columbia is a rich school, which makes it one of the world’s best universities. This fact is not advertised in any brochure or mentioned in PrezBo’s annual welcome speech. But that’s only because it doesn’t really need mentioning. It’s obvious that all that greatness ain’t cheap, and PrezBo is the emcee in Cabaret dazzling us with “Wilkommen” at the beginning of the show, only to hit us with “Money Makes the World Go Round” near the middle of Act One, right around Giving Day.

Besides Giving Day, though, that money comes largely from wealthy alumni donors—graduates of Columbia College, Columbia Business School, Columbia Law School, and, well, pretty much every school except for my own School of General Studies, nearly 40% of whose students are eligible for Pell Grants. In other words, we’re way too broke to endow a chair or even amply fund our own school––leading to less financial aid, more student debt, and consequently even fewer donations. Yet despite receiving less financial aid and having far more Pell Grant recipients than CC, GS continues to grow apace. Compared to CC’s, our enrollment exploded between 2008 and 2017.

This spurt in first-generation, low-income students has led to some growing pains. Because, if for no other reason than that they can afford to do so, the upper class’s primary contribution to Columbia’s character is something that poorer students often struggle to afford: the desire to aspire, to make more of themselves and the world. Aspiration on its own is value-neutral—it could be aspiration towards anything. What’s more important is that one cannot even consider aspiration before one has fulfilled a more immediate necessity, one which characterizes the lives of less well-off students: the need to get by.

These growing pains became more evident last year when Columbia students established a food pantry, an organization whose very purpose is helping people get by. It is therefore no coincidence that its founders were a pair of GS students rather than a wealthier student group for whom getting by is a non-issue. The food pantry exists to help FGLI students climb over the hump of getting by, bringing them up to speed with Columbia’s aspirational ethos.

And just as FGLI students want to and are expected to take up the wealthy’s will to aspire, the wealthy students are expected to learn something from being around economic diversity. This is where vague, unhelpful terms like “empathy” and “perspective” usually get thrown around. But whatever the moneyed classes are supposed to learn from the less well-off, we can at least say that it has nothing to do with getting by. This is not a give-and-take relationship, where low-income students steep in the virtues of aspiration while the wealthy steep in the virtues of barely making ends meet. Oh sure, we learn that lower-class students just happened to have done that, and that they’re stronger for it. But it only made them stronger insofar as it created the impetus for them to aspire to get a Columbia education in the first place. Having to get by made them want to not have to get by.

However, is there anything inherently wrong with getting by? There is, after all, a big difference between a FGLI student getting by and a student from the wealthiest 1 percent getting by, and the difference is the negative consequences or lack thereof. Yet all are expected to accede to Columbia’s master value of aspiration, which is embodied in the university’s bottomless hunger for donations, and whose feast day is called Giving Day.

If Columbia or its wealthy students were to wholly adopt an ethos of getting by, then they’d no longer be what or who they are. But if they adopt it as part of their culture, then perhaps the FGLI growing pains would hurt less, and the contentment of getting by would put all-encompassing aspiration into perspective.

Columbia is a rich school, which makes it one of the world’s best universities. This fact is not advertised in any brochure or mentioned in PrezBo’s annual welcome speech. But that’s only because it doesn’t really need mentioning. It’s obvious that all that greatness ain’t cheap, and PrezBo is the emcee in Cabaret dazzling us with “Wilkommen” at the beginning of the show, only to hit us with “Money Makes the World Go Round” near the middle of Act One, right around Giving Day.

Besides Giving Day, though, that money comes largely from wealthy alumni donors—graduates of Columbia College, Columbia Business School, Columbia Law School, and, well, pretty much every school except for my own School of General Studies, nearly 40% of whose students are eligible for Pell Grants. In other words, we’re way too broke to endow a chair or even amply fund our own school––leading to less financial aid, more student debt, and consequently even fewer donations. Yet despite receiving less financial aid and having far more Pell Grant recipients than CC, GS continues to grow apace. Compared to CC’s, our enrollment exploded between 2008 and 2017.

This spurt in first-generation, low-income students has led to some growing pains. Because, if for no other reason than that they can afford to do so, the upper class’s primary contribution to Columbia’s character is something that poorer students often struggle to afford: the desire to aspire, to make more of themselves and the world. Aspiration on its own is value-neutral—it could be aspiration towards anything. What’s more important is that one cannot even consider aspiration before one has fulfilled a more immediate necessity, one which characterizes the lives of less well-off students: the need to get by.

Jeremy Mack is a first- year English major at the School of General Studies. Should you aspire to email him about this piece, he can be reached at jm4824@columbia.edu.

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By JEREMY MACK
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When I listened to Brett Kavanaugh reply, in response to a question about his drinking habits, “[I] got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School,” I was reminded once again of the ways in which an Ivy League degree is perceived by some in our society as a sign of worthiness, good work ethic, and strong moral character. Our society’s capitalistic Protestant ethic, famously discussed by Max Weber, moralizes “success” and privilege into proof of good character.

Despite performative gestures toward diversifying Ivy League campuses both racially and economically, the disproportionate representation of the very wealthy at Columbia is a feature, not a bug, of “elite education.” As recently as the 1960s, applicants to some Ivy League schools were subjected to a physical characteristics checklist to ensure they fit the image of the manly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant upon which the schools built their brand.

Additionally, the legacy preference that still plays a significant role in elite university admissions effectively functions as affirmative action for the wealthy white students who disproportionately make up the legacy student population. Legacy and donor preference bought mediocre student Jared Kushner, and probably many like him, an admission letter to Harvard. The Ivy League wanted, and still wants, to fill its student body with students who predominantly look and live like the racially and economically privileged. The Ivy League is disproportionately upper-income because it was designed to function as a replicator of the very wealthy, predominantly white ruling class.

Considering that an elite education opens doors for its graduates to rise to positions of influence, Columbia's vastly disproportionate demographics are of deep concern to all of us. Because, despite what Kavanaugh may think, an Ivy League education doesn't make you a good person. It doesn't mold graduates into people who make the world better, but rather people who work to benefit themselves and the institutions that keep them in power.

When our leaders are reared in a bubble of privilege from the cradle to Congress, without ever having to hear the voices of the marginalized, the result is policy that harms ordinary people. At Columbia, the disproportionate representation of the voices of the privileged both within the classroom and on the campus at large leaves many on the margins and disconnected from the campus community. The dominance of a particular set of voices and experiences in the formative years of college results in future decision-makers who have never heard from or considered the experiences of the very people whose lives are affected by their decisions. Men making decisions about women's bodies. White people passing legislation endangering, exploiting, and silencing people of color. The super-rich taking money from big donors and depriving poor people of affordable healthcare and housing, weakening labor unions, and rolling back social welfare.

Columbia and its peers like to present themselves as the vanguards of global problem solving and change making. But people cannot solve problems they have never experienced, and, more importantly, so much is lost when we exclude the voices of those who have experienced them. To address the issues of poverty, universities must listen to the voices of the poor—or, better yet, pass the mic.

When I listened to Brett Kavanaugh reply, in response to a question about his drinking habits, “[I] got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School,” I was reminded once again of the ways in which an Ivy League degree is perceived by some in our society as a sign of worthiness, good work ethic, and strong moral character. Our society’s capitalistic Protestant ethic, famously discussed by Max Weber, moralizes “success” and privilege into proof of good character.

Despite performative gestures toward diversifying Ivy League campuses both racially and economically, the disproportionate representation of the very wealthy at Columbia is a feature, not a bug, of “elite education.” As recently as the 1960s, applicants to some Ivy League schools were subjected to a physical characteristics checklist to ensure they fit the image of the manly white Anglo-Saxon Protestant upon which the schools built their brand.

Tiffany Dimm is a sophomore at Columbia College majoring in English. She’s involved inwith Student-Worker Solidarity and Columbia Divest for Climate Justice.

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By TIFFANY DIMM

The data’s complicated, but here’s the upshot from the New York Times’ Upshot blog: On a list of American colleges and universities, Columbia ranks number 1,695 in mobility rate, based on data from students who graduated between 2002 and 2004. 13.4 percent of the class of 2013 came from the top 1 percent of American households, while 21.1 percent of students came from the bottom 60 percent of households.

These figures are dismal if we think of our elite universities as engines of social mobility that launch bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher social classes.

To its credit, Columbia has attempted to put students from first-generation and low-income backgrounds on similar footing as their wealthier peers. But there remains work to be done. The effectiveness of programs in closing the academic skills gap between low income students and their wealthier classmates is questioned by participants. In addition, while eliminating loans from demonstrated-need financial aid packages is great, being a student in New York still isn’t cheap—textbooks remain unpurchased, socially-significant outings foregone, and school breaks a challenge. Punishing low-income students to spite the marching band doesn't help.

In other words, the problem runs deeper than the dearth of representation of FGLI students. Those who make it to Columbia—disregarding the many high-achieving low-income students, who, unaware of existing opportunities, decline to shoot for elite universities—face de facto exclusion from the college experience that many of their classmates enjoy.

This contrast is dismal, not because I believe universities like Columbia should be the greatest engines of social mobility––the Times analysis finds that mid-tier public colleges best serve this function—but because the role of these institutions should be to train the American elite.

Let's clarify what this phrase means, though. When we talk about Columbia's education of the elite, we mean that Columbia facilitates the training of those white-collar, upper-middle-class managers, administrators, and intellectuals whose work shapes our economy, politics, and society. I don't have enough column space to argue that the existence of this class is broadly beneficial and that we can count on its persistence. For argument's sake, though, let's assume these things. And come on––if you believe in the imminence of a classless society, I’ve got some snake oil to sell you.

That we live in a peculiar time has become an annoying trope, but it's not wrong. Whether this moment in American history represents unprecedented hostility toward the elite is debatable, but the crisis of trust in our institutions and their stewards is undeniable. Classmates, this should alarm you: In a few short years, regardless of your socioeconomic origins, you will very likely be among this “elite,” with not-inconsequential influence and decision-making power.

There’s at least an inkling of truth to the popular indictment of the elite perspective; society’s discontents clearly identify the status quo’s shortcomings, and the managerial class can often overlook them. At the same time, the liberal order has achieved so much for so many. The principles promoted by the Core Curriculum favor democracy and the free exchange of ideas; they are worth upholding. Only through the constant churn and countervailing intellectual force that a wealth of different perspectives brings to the boardroom, Silicon Valley campuses, and the halls of power can we challenge conventional wisdom and prod old orthodoxies that favor disastrous outcomes.

And that’s why Columbia’s difficulties with socioeconomic diversity matter: populists, proponents of identity politics, and democratic socialists claim that the alleged failures of the “elites” mean it’s time to consider radical alternatives to capitalist and classically liberal principles—they’re taking aim at institutions like ours. The capacity of elite universities to co-opt people from all socioeconomic backgrounds and shape their intellectual and professional development will determine our ability to defend modern society by better identifying its blind spots.

The data’s complicated, but here’s the upshot from the New York Times’ Upshot blog: On a list of American colleges and universities, Columbia ranks number 1,695 in mobility rate, based on data from students who graduated between 2002 and 2004. 13.4 percent of the class of 2013 came from the top 1 percent of American households, while 21.1 percent of students came from the bottom 60 percent of households.

These figures are dismal if we think of our elite universities as engines of social mobility that launch bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds into higher social classes.

Jimmy Quinn is a junior in the School of General Studies, majoring in political science. He’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you disagree. Reach him at jtq2104@columbia.edu or on Twitter @realjimmyquinn.

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By JIMMY QUINN

Columbia advertises itself as an elite institution of higher learning, whereas admitted students we are told that we can not only succeed, but also significantly impact the world post-graduation. Because of networks, notable professors, and rigorous classes, one may believe that the gates of Columbia transcend race, class, and other social experiences. Unfortunately, socio-economic status divisions and educational backgrounds disparities exist on Columbia’s campus that further perpetuate inequality.

Due to the disproportionate number of students from the top 1 percent at Columbia, this wealth gap affects how students feel in the classroom despite the University’s claims of racial and socioeconomic diversity. Consider the impacts of the difference in students’ wealth: Those who had access to a plethora of Advanced Placement courses or top-tier tutoring services in private prep schools can hold an advantage in the classroom. Students who engaged with texts from the Core in high school can often hold an unrecognized advantage in comparison to students who came from schools that did not have the resources to supply them with such books. Additionally, while more privileged students are often able to speak to teachers with ease, first-generation and low-income students more familiar with larger lecture-style courses in high school may be apprehensive about the dynamics of small class discussions.

Ultimately, these differences result in an imbalance of who is represented in the University, who is made comfortable and allowed to inject themselves into conversation, and who is provided with the opportunities to succeed.

If the University desires to embrace the full breadth of inclusion, it must always be conscious of those who have faced substantial or systematic barriers to attending an elite university such as Columbia. Across campus, FGLI students articulate the frustrations of class divisions that can define a college experience, such as assuming that all students have the same privileged networks to attain a high-paying job. In addition, even the basic need of food can be comprised when a group of wealthier students can spend hundreds of dollars on concert tickets, while a less wealthy student might use that money to purchase dinner.

Such circumstances are often not discussed and may only see the light of day when a student speaks out publicly or Spectator writes about them. If college communities wish to make the university campus a place of equal opportunity for each student, they must reconcile with their maintenance of demographic disparities, centralize the most vulnerable voices, and enact change.

Columbia’s duty to respect, honor, and support the identities of those who have been historically locked out of wealth is crucial. And as a result of gaining access into this elite network of students, all students, particularly privileged ones, should reconsider their social and moral responsibility to addressing the inequality perpetuated on campus.

Columbia advertises itself as an elite institution of higher learning, whereas admitted students we are told that we can not only succeed, but also significantly impact the world post-graduation. Because of networks, notable professors, and rigorous classes, one may believe that the gates of Columbia transcend race, class, and other social experiences. Unfortunately, socio-economic status divisions and educational backgrounds disparities exist on Columbia’s campus that further perpetuate inequality.

Due to the disproportionate number of students from the top 1 percent at Columbia, this wealth gap affects how students feel in the classroom despite the University’s claims of racial and socioeconomic diversity. Consider the impacts of the difference in students’ wealth: Those who had access to a plethora of Advanced Placement courses or top-tier tutoring services in private prep schools can hold an advantage in the classroom. Students who engaged with texts from the Core in high school can often hold an unrecognized advantage in comparison to students who came from schools that did not have the resources to supply them with such books. Additionally, while more privileged students are often able to speak to teachers with ease, first-generation and low-income students more familiar with larger lecture-style courses in high school may be apprehensive about the dynamics of small class discussions.

Tova Ricardo is a sophomore in Columbia College studying English and sociology.

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By TOVA RICARDO

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

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