Sarah Lawrence College: home of the wealthy wearing rags for fashion, and an ever-present omniscient elephant in the room labeled “SOCIAL CLASS.” Each attendee of SLC is guaranteed to be asked a handful of questions in their lifetime—among them, isn’t that an all girl’s school? Is that in the city? And, of course, isn’t that the most expensive school in the country?
To which we as a collective might respond—not anymore, not quite, and was—it was the most expensive school in the country. Columbia and NYU have beat us out, by now. Yet the point remains. A conversation about SLC is a conversation that inevitably revolves around income, yet inside the bubble of school life this is a point rarely discussed. There is no easy or correct way to gauge the consequences of this muteness—whether transparency about family income should be acknowledged as a means of recognizing privilege is a debate that foremost, requires a look at the numbers.
So let’s look at the numbers.
In January, TheUpShot of The New York Times published an alarming headline: “Some Colleges Have More Students from the Top 1 Percent Than the Bottom 60. Find Yours.” The article is chock-full of color infographics and provides an analysis of a study, conducted by a handful of professors at UC Berkeley, which looked at “how well or how poorly colleges have built an economically diverse student body.” Method-wise, the data is taken from the anonymized tax returns from the families of about 30 million students born between 1980 and 1991.
The study, which can be read in full at www.equality-of-opportunity.org, concluded a number of shocking finds—among them, the title of the piece; that 38 colleges had “more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent.” Sarah Lawrence falls far from the top 40, ranking at #143. For the record, Washington University at St. Louis ranks #1, with a whopping 27.1 percent of its student body coming from the top 1 percent ($630k+), compared to a measly 6.1 percent from the bottom 60 percent (<$65k). In comparison, 7.3 percent of the Sarah Lawrence student body comes from the top one percent, and 24.5 percent comes from the bottom 60 percent. Those numbers add up to 31.8 percent of the student body—and of the remaining, about 60 percent of students come from the top 20 percent.
These numbers might appear discouraging nonetheless—but, in the realm of elite colleges, Sarah Lawrence ranks well for economic diversity. It is in the top 10 for enrolling the highest percentage of low- and middle-income students, at 13.1 percent of its student body coming from the bottom 40 percent. In the 2016-2017 school year, 17 percent of students on campus have a Pell Grant, which is a need-based federal grant for low-income students (compared to 14 percent in 2006-2007).
Unsurprisingly, however, Sarah Lawrence students as a whole come from among from the highest family incomes, relative to other New York schools. Yet among 71 other highly selective private colleges, SLC ranks #35—making its average family income of $137,000, well, pretty average. Relatively speaking. Figure 1 offers a more detailed look at how student income at SLC compares to incomes at peer institutions.
That being said, it’s important to note that despite a high average family income, a majority of students at SLC are on some type of financial aid—71 percent in the current school year, to be exact. Those numbers are a significant increase from ten years ago, when only 58 percent of students were on financial aid. For a school that does not have need-blind admissions (meaning that a student’s financial situation is a factor in the admissions decisions), a 13 percent increase in aid demonstrates an increased effort on the part of the administration to increase socioeconomic diversity in the school.
But what do these efforts manifest into after receiving an SLC degree? In the study, the most surprising reveal comes from the “outcomes” section of the study, which quantifies how SLC students perform after graduation. For almost categories—median individual income at 34, average income percentile, share of those who end up in the top income percent, and the average income of a poor and rich student—Sarah Lawrence students rank among the lowest. See Fig. 2 for a visual reference.
So, what does all of this build up to? The fact of the matter is that according to the UC Berkeley study, Sarah Lawrence has one of the lowest mobility rates—that is, the ability for students coming from the bottom 40 percent to end up in the top 40 percent post-grad. A mere eight and a half percent of students from the bottom 40 percent succeed in climbing the income ranks. That puts Sarah Lawrence at an atrocious 3.4 percent mobility rate. Of 71 highly selective private colleges examined in the study, Sarah Lawrence comes in dead last in overall mobility index. In different terms, that means that on average, only 1.2 percent of SLC students coming from a poor family become rich adults later in life. Beyond that, it appears that no matter what economic background they come from, SLC students are economically worse-off compared to their peers post-graduation.
Now, let’s turn our attention away from the infographics, and shine the limelight back onto you: our readers. Fellow SLC students, whose fates have been allegedly calculated by researchers in California, what are we to make of these discouraging findings? In part three of this series, the Sarah Lawrence Phoenix will publish a survey of student reactions. If you have a reaction, please write to us, and send your feelings to firstname.lastname@example.org. Your letter can contain anything. Maybe you are re-evaluating your post-grad plans upon learning the numbers. Maybe this isn’t shocking to you at all. Maybe you think it’s about time we start talking about class in this school—or maybe, there’s another side to the story that we aren’t looking at. We look forward to reading your thoughts.
Kate Bakhtiyarova ‘19