Whenever someone from home asks me what Columbia is like on the weekends, I always like to tell them that “one-third of us”—myself included—“are in Butler, one-third of us are out downtown, and one-third of us are trying to figure out where the other two-thirds are.”
I am exaggerating, but from experience, it’s close to the truth. When I ask people what they did over the weekends, the answers I get seem to fall invariably into one of those three categories, of “I was in the library,” “I’m was in the Village/the Meatpacking District/Williamsburg,” or “I watched Netflix—what did you do?
Of course, of all of these, going out sounds like it would be the most fun, unless you were watching a particularly good movie on Netflix (I’ve seen them all already—there aren’t many). But I’ve found that whenever I do accept an invitation to go out, I quickly find myself in a whirl of expenses that for some reason always seems to surprise me.
I am not one to often complain that things are too expensive, namely because I am aware I can afford most things I need—food, clothing, and other living expenses. Indeed, the idea of bemoaning what one reviewer of the recent novel “The Exiles” called the “dire fate of the merely wealthy” strikes most as ludicrous. Even the tony New York Observer, which proudly tells advertisers that its readers are the “most affluent, educated and influential [New Yorkers], with an average household income of $644,000 and average net worth of $4.1 million,” felt inclined to lampoon the book.
But there is a sudden and unshakable feeling of awkwardness when you find yourself having to cancel dinners with your friends because $50 dinners twice a week are not part of a sustainable lifestyle. It’s easy enough to justify it in your head as financial responsibility. What’s not as easy is coming to terms with the fact that many of your friends can afford such things.
I recall in my freshman year being asked if I’d want to join some friends for a ski trip in Vermont for a weekend. “I don’t ski,” I protested. I was told there were lessons. Interesting, but I had to ask the inevitable, “How much would it cost?” I was met with stunned silence. “I’m just curious,” I clarified. “It’s not like it’s a problem.” I was told it was $600. There again was that odd feeling, that $600 merited as much concern as a cup of coffee.
There is more to this than mere anecdote. In 2006, the New York Times noted that the upper middle class was rapidly being left behind by the abundantly wealthy in salaries, in mobility, in opportunities.
In terms of raw numbers, Columbia does not have a breakdown of students by family income. What we do know is that, according the Office of Financial Aid and Educational Financing, “approximately half” of all students receive financial aid. Financial Aid does not, however, tell us what the income cutoff is. According to a 2010 article in the Huffington Post by professor and former provost Jonathan R. Cole, “at most of the Ivy League schools, if your parents’ family income is less than $200,000, you will receive scholarship aid and some minimal loan support.”
The implication, then, is that approximately half of Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Science students have family incomes over $200,000. Going by a 2012 Congressional Research Service report, that would mean incomes above the 95th percentile for all households nationwide. Not only are we the top 7.4 percent (who get into Columbia), then, but also the top 4.2 percent—or at least half of us. Of course, not every person who falls into that category has an infinite sum of disposable income.
But it sometimes feels like it’s the case that there are some students you just don’t see outside of class—those who are permanently elsewhere. Where that somewhere else is—the parterre of the Metropolitan Opera or a downtown club with a $50 cover charge—is unknown and unimportant. What you do know is that wherever it is, you probably couldn’t afford to be there.
If there exists a prohibitive level of wealth—one that many Columbians cannot reach—which prevents Columbians from participating socially, it means that we should take a look at how we interact with one another and what we expect of each other. Very often, we focus on the barriers people face because of their races, their gender identities, their sexualities, or their ethnic backgrounds. For many of us, the disparity of financial backgrounds presents a far more substantive impediment to a united community. Maybe it’s time we started talking about it.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore with a prospective major in economics-political science.
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