A good friend and I were sitting in his dorm room during my sophomore year of college, teasing each other and philosophizing. The two went together for us; the teasing would push us to explore our ideas: a little good-natured discomfort would jar us into a new mindset, or at least towards putting an old mindset into some kind of larger perspective. Of course, he teased me a lot more than I teased him. He was a year older, but beyond that, a bit more sophisticated somehow. He had traveled quite a bit. His mother and grandparents collected cool kinds of art like Chinese snuff bottles. Maybe because his grandparents had owned an upscale women’s clothing store, he knew just what to wear for any occasion in order to fit in. And his father was one of those people who had a funky Manhattan apartment and a country house.
I looked at him, a little afraid to share the idea I was brewing. But I outed with it before long. It was just me and him; nothing too bad could come of it. “You know who there’s, like, practically none of at this school?” He looked at me, obviously curious. I threw it out there: “The average American.”
“Levine, I guess that’s the whole point, right? Brown is supposed to be about quirky students and all that. The average American isn’t really what it’s about.” He called me “Levine,” partly because my last name was so obviously Jewish and he was more into being Jewish than I was, which was sort of an inside joke.
“Right, but I don’t mean quirkiness; I mean background. I mean, like, the average middle-class white American.” We both started laughing, because that’s how we often reacted, and there was something very funny about it in an indefinable way.
I continued, just kind of speaking as I thought: “I mean, unless you want to count, like, me.”
“Well, why not?”
“Because you don’t fit that mold.”
“I mean, I kind of do, don’t you think? My family just has our one average-sized house in suburban New Jersey. We don’t go on vacation very often. We pretty much never do anything too extravagant. My parents didn’t go to school here or anyplace similar. I know they worked hard to save the money for tuition.”
“Let me ask you something.” He leaned forward in that way he had, getting super-close to my face. I backed up like I always did, and we both cracked up as usual. Then he got pretty serious. “When was the last time you thought about money?”
“I guess I’m thinking about it now, somewhat.”
“No, I mean: when was the last time you worried about money? When was the last time you wondered how your tuition bill was going to get paid? When I suggest we go out to a restaurant or something, when was the last time you had a thought that you might not be able to afford it?” I breathed in, considered the situation, and realized I’d never once had any of these thoughts, though sometimes I did hesitate a bit if I thought I’d be spending a lot.
I started laughing. Then he did. And then he said: “The average American’s parents wouldn’t just be paying tuition here without much discussion. The average American student would be working hard at a paying job during the school year to help with the bills. The average American would be graduating with debt because tuition money would be impossible to scrape up right away. I mean, all kinds of things would be different.”
I was kind of angry, but I couldn’t argue. I could press my original point, though. “OK, OK, so I’m here, but I’m serious: the real average white American is practically nowhere to be found. I’m talking about you, know, the kid of a carpenter and a school lunch lady or something. Brown recruits in inner cities and stuff so we have some people from that background, and we have people whose parents are immigrants from all kinds of awesome places, but there’s practically no one from, like, I don’t know… a trailer park. Where are the average trailer park Americans? Or even, like, small town working-class Americans? You know what I mean. They may just be the most common group in the whole country, but there’s almost no one like that here, which is really pretty crazy. There’s a decent number of racial minority students from all kinds of social classes, but most of the white students here are at least somewhat affluent, and those who aren’t usually have well-educated parents who chose less lucrative fields — and that’s not true of the country as a whole. The admissions office probably sees them as boring people with nothing special about their backgrounds, but that seems unfair: they’re as interesting as anyone else.”
He agreed that I had a point. We both tried to think of Brown students who might fit the “average American” category and we came up with a few between us, but not too many. This was no sociology dissertation. Our criteria were fuzzy, and we didn’t know most people well enough to make a true judgment, but make no mistake: college students can figure out more than we might think.
We had both met several super-rich kids who decided on Thursday to travel to Europe on Friday. (I begged my friend to concede that I was much closer to the average American than they were, but he scoffed and said most of them weren’t American at all, so that issue wasn’t even worth considering.) We also knew several African American and Latino/a/x (I’m honestly confused about the current PC terminology so I’m hedging my bets and including various possibilities) students, and a large percentage of them were lower middle class or below. I’d spent time with one white student who had lived the last several years in a foster home because her mother was mentally ill and unable to care for her, and her father was out of the picture. But the “average American” — our new term for children of blue collar workers, law enforcement people, non-elite military personnel, farmers, physical laborers, and others who arguably formed the hardworking backbone of the American economy and kept our physical world in good order — was rare at our school.
They did exist in small numbers, and, at one point, many of them banded together and helped form a coalition of students on financial aid. They weren’t the only demographic in that coalition, but they seemed to be a fairly substantial percentage, based on the columns I used to catch in Brown’s student newspaper. I didn’t know anyone involved in this organization except by sight, and, to be totally honest (since I’m pathologically incapable of being anything else) this group frightened and intimidated me a bit. The essays they published were often angry, detailing their experiences at Brown as they worked, scrimped, and saved while their peers studied casually and had fun in various carefree ways. Brown was a very racially and ethnically aware campus, and many politically oriented campus groups along those lines thrived. The difference here was clear: the focus was economic background, not race, and many involved were white. They seemed disgusted and hurt because they felt that their experiences were not valued on the campus as a whole.
It reminded me of the private school where I spent my last three high school years. Many of the students were wealthy by anyone’s standards. There was also a decent-sized contingent of minority students from Newark and other depressed areas, who received full scholarships. There were a few kids like me, who didn’t get financial aid but almost always hung around in New Jersey during breaks when most other kids were jetting off to who knows where. And there were some white students on financial aid, but just a few from what I could tell. No one talked about it much. One girl I knew was actually embarrassed when a public announcement was made about her scholarship because her mother told her to pretend she was paying full tuition. The less affluent white students at my high school didn’t really have a community like many of the minority students were able to forge, and they didn’t particularly fit in with the minority students or the affluent white people.
Piecing all of this together, I began to think about the politics and logistics behind it all. Schools have limited money for financial aid. Even when they claim to be completely need blind, they count on the large tuitions that many if not most students pay. And they want to be visibly diverse. Considering all of this, it makes practical sense to award the most substantial swath of financial aid money to students from racial minority groups. Published statistics will share percentages of students from various ethnic and racial groups, and schools like to keep their numbers up and their student bodies looking visually representative of the larger culture. Schools often report numbers of students who are the first generation in their families to attend college, so white students who fit that statistic will get a boost there, but simple practicality would suggest that accepting applicants who can increase more than one number at once — say, an African American student who is also “first gen” — gives you more bang for your buck.
All this to say: with the current system, it doesn’t make much sense for elite, expensive schools to recruit heavily in largely white working-class schools and areas, because most of the students will need substantial help with tuition, and they won’t enhance numbers and visible diversity nearly as much as, say, an inner city community with mostly minority residents. Working-class and poor white kids tend to be just as in the dark about selective college admissions as inner city minority kids, so, without the push from the schools themselves, they rarely apply — and those who do are up against strict competition from kids who have had more resources from birth and from less affluent minority students who benefited from special educational programs geared towards preparing people from their particular backgrounds for elite educations. For instance, there are large-scale programs that help place bright minority students into elite prep schools they never would have considered otherwise, securing scholarship money along the way. These sorts of opportunities seem much rarer for less affluent white students, who mostly seem to attend standard public high schools that don’t emphasize selective college admissions.
A very few extremely wealthy schools like Harvard and Stanford appear to have somewhat higher percentages of working- class white students; I’ve spent time at Harvard as a graduate student and a Cambridge resident, so I have some sense for the demographics. But most elite private colleges, including Tufts, where I now teach, seem to fit the trends I’ve described, and even Harvard seems to have relatively few of the “Average Americans” I missed during my college days.
I called up these memories and observations when thinking about Donald Trump’s recent victory. There are many more reasons than white working-class voting patterns, but that group’s tendency to support him was clearly a key factor. I’ve heard lots of speculation about this demographic’s racist tendencies and utter alienation from typical urban elites. Many don’t remotely fit these trends, but some observers have noted large-scale patterns along these lines.
There are many paths towards economic and social mobility, but, historically, elite colleges have played a relatively strong role here. And they seem to leave this demographic out to a large extent, letting people from that sort of background assume that these schools are unfriendly and out of reach both economically and socially. Meanwhile, these colleges often extend somewhat warm hands towards other groups with limited financial and social resources — for instance, letting students from under-represented racial minority groups know that various programs are in place to help them thrive.
Now, both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had elite educations: Clinton graduated from Wellesley College and Yale Law School, and Trump spent his college days at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School. But, you know what? Hillary Clinton probably seems like a prissy, snooty Wellesley graduate to many white working-class types. Donald Trump is brash, loud, physical, and unsubtle: he doesn’t seem like the Ivy League type. And his talk about building walls and such might have had particular appeal to people who see immigrants from certain countries get wooed by prestigious colleges, while their own children seem to be overlooked.
I’m guessing most of them don’t particularly want to attend these schools: it’s not like they feel an active snub. But they’re aware of the various processes at play, and it all might encourage particular alienation from the kinds of people who control and graduate from these sorts of places. If they felt more of an energetic welcome, more of them would probably apply.
Though private companies don’t have the same kind of recruiting process as colleges, some of the same factors are probably at work, with a perceived need to have certain numbers from various minority groups, but no particular motivation to reach out to the applicant from a white working-class background — even if that applicant’s family and educational history make him look less impressive than most competitors despite fabulous skills and motivation.
In other words, that particular demographic is often forgotten: a group that lacks many advantages and the assistance and safety nets some elite organizations have extended to others from non-privileged families. So it makes sense that they’re sometimes furious, that they lack confidence in “traditional elites” like Hillary Clinton (whether she’s actually a traditional elite, whatever that might mean, is irrelevant: the key is that she strikes them that way), and even that they might tend towards racism and fear of immigrants who could take away their own shot at success.
Clinton spoke of togetherness, of unity, of everyone working together to build each person up. But this message might fall flat if you feel forgotten and undervalued. In the hours and days following the election, I heard people mocking “Billy Bob” in ways that they never would have tolerated if “Moshe” or “Juan” had been the target. Ex: “I guess all those beer-swilling Billy Bob morons got us into this mess.” Substitute “Manischewitz-swilling Moshe morons” or “taco-licking Juan morons” and you’ll see my point, I’m sure.
This is, at most, only a small piece of this odd puzzle. I’ve spent almost my whole adult life either studying or working in universities, so that’s my particular slant. Never mind the bizarreness of some hardworking, financially struggling steelworker relating to Donald Trump, of all people, thinking he will be motivated to jump in and help. It all makes sense when I cock my mind in a certain way: a way that shoots towards understanding as many minds as possible in this great, confusing, dark, deeply flawed, and possibly glorious world.
Stephanie Wellen Levine is the author of Mystics, Mavericks, And Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls: winner of Moment Magazine’s 2004 Emerging Writer Book Award. Currently, Stephanie is on a spiritual quest as she completes a second book and teaches at Tufts University.