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Economic diversity is essential to our liberal arts

Times’ College Accessibility Index highlights troubling deficiencies in Kenyon’s socioeconomic diversity.

On Monday at 8:33 p.m., I posted a link to a BuzzFeed article on Facebook, and wrote this statement along with it:

“Good news: we’re a top 25 institution. Bad news: we rank in the bottom five universities of that list for enrollment of low-income students, just 10%. We’re in good company though, Harvard and Washington University in St. Louis aren’t doing any better. Just a reminder that economic diversity is also pertinent to giving students a wholesome experience within a diverse constituency.”

Study after study has indicated that individuals with more education have access to higher-paying jobs, have more stable relationships and live longer and healthier lives than those with little or no education. Not only does it seem that education may allow individuals to live fuller lives, but education also equips individuals with access to mechanisms that will give them the ability to project their voice in situations that may directly affect their livelihood. For so long in our country’s history, state-of-the-art education has been only afforded to the wealthy.

This means lower-income individuals and less wealthy families have gone generations without being exposed to higher education. This is a disadvantage-breeding-disadvantage phenomenon, and Kenyon, like so many accredited institutions for higher learning, is adding to this narrative.

The New York Times recently updated its College Accessibility Index. The list is a measure of how economically diverse a school is based on its allotted endowment per student, the average number of students in an incoming class receiving a Pell Grant multiplied by the number of graduating students receiving Pell Grants, and the net price for a middle-income student .  Kenyon ranks 120th out of 179, behind many of our overlap schools. To many students, this may seem like a “So what? Who cares? This doesn’t affect me” issue. But don’t be so quick to turn your ear. 

The absence of economic diversity affects every student. At the foundation of a liberal arts education is the yearning for knowledge for political jousting, empathetic reason, cultural understanding and exposure to different perspectives. This foundation in critical thought about difference is what makes a liberal arts education so unique and worthwhile. Ignoring economic diversity as an integral part of a student’s learning experience inside and outside the classroom would naïvely stunt the potential of a liberal arts degree.

Added to this, homosocial reproduction — the tendency for an institution to consistently reintegrate individuals from similar backgrounds into its constituency — limits the ability to communicate with members of society post-Kenyon. Part of the beauty of the Hill is that it is a bubble; for most of us, it is one that will pop in four years.  After that, we are thrust into a world of diversity. Many of us will live in a world where we must communicate to people of various backgrounds and exercise ethical judgment. Nelson Mandela said, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Without exposure to peoples of different backgrounds at Kenyon, it is difficult to expect success in an environment that may be vastly different. But that is what we are here for: To learn from one another. To exchange cultures. And to be exposed to difference.

Eric Sutton III ’18 is an international studies and sociology major from Indianapolis. Contact him at suttoneo@kenyon.edu.