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Examining Classism on College Campuses through a Critical Social Justice Lens

By Lina Zhang, V Form

Examining Classism on College Campuses through a Critical Social Justice Lens

This September, New Mexico planned to pass a law that would offer free tuition for its public four-year colleges for all residents of the state. While legislation like this and policies such as affirmative action are increasing education accessibility, the article in The Atlantic questions whether institutions are truly addressing the lives of low-income students after they enter competitive colleges. Through exploring several aspects of campus life, the article exposes the institutional inequalities that low-income students face on campus because of their class status and positionality. When elite colleges fail to provide for the dignified wellbeing of low-income students, they reinforce classism, a complicated and historical system of oppression that manifests itself as internalized sentiments of dominance and oppression and intersects with multiple aspects of racism, doubly disadvantaging low-income students of color.

         To begin understanding classism, we must first view classism not only in terms of individuals and anecdotal evidence but through overarching patterns throughout society. In its explanation of oppression, the textbook Is Everyone Really Equal highlights the “pervasive, historical, and political relationships of unequal power among social groups” (Sensoy and DiAngelo 65) that cause the “-isms.” In a capitalistic society like the United States, wealth has always been the clearest determinant of power. As politicians, legislators, CEOs, and—in this case—board members of colleges usually come from the upper class, this contributes to an inclination towards the benefit of the upper class and the institutional oppression of members of the working and lower classes. This perpetuates a social stratification or social hierarchy, wherein different amounts of resources are allocated to different social groups based on a good/bad binary constructed by the dominant group, or the upper class. The article examines several correlations between income and admittance and found that students from the top 1% were 77 times more likely to be admitted to an Ivy League compared to students from low-income families. It also found that, despite policies such as affirmative action, low-income students still overwhelmingly choose to pursue their education at less-selective institutions and colleges even though these institutions offer lower-quality education. As these students will then not be able to progress to a higher social class, the cyclical system contributes to the solidification of social hierarchies and the system of classism.

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