What does social class mean at Colby?

By Sarah Carrigan ‘16 & Emily Doyle ‘16

Social class is one of those things that’s constantly there, but rarely recognized. No one notices what their money buys them, or what their connections get them. At least, no one who is privileged enough to ignore it. Instead, we attribute most of our advantages to merit—we earned our admission to Colby College, and we earned that difficult summer job. Despite this ignorance, many people’s successes (and failures) are dependent on their social class—that elusive, invisible force following us through life. 

In Adam Howard’s class “Social Class and Schooling,” students have been identifying social class in multiple facets of our lives at Colby. Social class is omnipresent at a place like Colby. Regardless of how we entered Colby, the opportunities here are offering us social, cultural, human and financial capital that will allow us to do pretty much anything we want.  We have social capital in the connections we make and the people we know, especially those who can get us jobs after school. We have cultural capital in the opportunities we are exposed to, the lectures we attend, and the ability to put on events like “Social Class Awareness Week.” We have the time and the resources to broaden our worldview. We have human capital in our professors—the skilled, knowledgeable, accomplished people who devote their time solely to teaching us. Colby also gives us financial capital—students can apply for grants for internships, funding for clubs and SGA…the opportunities are endless. Colby is a giver of social class. But we didn’t all start out with the same resources.

Our families are in large part a determinant of our place in the social class hierarchy. This inherited social class is then a large determinant of what we accomplish in school, where we go to college, and what jobs we find after. Did you visit museums as a child? Did you play with educational toys? Were you read books as a child? All of those are a reflection of social class. Having higher social class is having the time and resources to pursue a broader education outside of school. It is the resources to pay for that SAT tutor, or even for taking the SAT a million times to get your highest “superscore.”

The problem is, most people refuse to acknowledge that their privilege is a result of social class, or they are not educated enough to know the difference. Instead, they chalk it up to their own intelligence. “Those people just don’t try hard enough,” or “I earned my spot at Colby fair and square.” Did you? Or did you just have adequate resources to make it this far?

Students in lower social classes might only have the funds to take the SAT’s once and are stuck with the score they get. Others had to work after school, instead of pumping up their extracurricular activities, which colleges often look for on an academic resume. Some kindergarteners don’t have parents with the time to read to them every night, making literacy that much harder to achieve. At every point in our lives, social class is incredibly salient, yet equally as invisible. We prefer to see our privileges and our accomplishments as intrinsic and well-earned. And yes, we did have to put in a great deal of effort to get here to Mayflower Hill…but others might have had to give even more.

But Colby, you say, has students from a range of different social classes! It is possible to get here from a lower social class, there are scholarships for those less-privileged students who lack the funds to pay their way. And yes, there are systems in place to make our population at Colby more economically diverse. Yes, we do have students of lower social classes at Colby. But we cannot ignore the problem. It is still incredibly difficult to overcome the barriers that social class puts up in our society.

A recent survey showed that, by and large, the majority of students at Colby identify as upper middle class. Thus, most of us likely had the resources we needed to get here. So what can we do? The first step is to be aware. That’s what Social Class Awareness Week is all about! We need to take note of the subtle and not so subtle privileges that permeate our lives, that allow us to get that awesome summer internship or go out to dinner to celebrate a friend’s birthday. Be educated. Take part in the Social Class Awareness Week events put on by our class—don’t be a bystander. Be aware of your privilege, and eventually, you might be able to help those without.

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