By Phoebe Carter
Of the approximately 1,600 students at Kenyon, 252 of them work at least two jobs on campus to help finance their education. One of those students is Conrad Jacober ’15, who likened Kenyon to a “company town,” where all the wages workers earn go right back to the company that employs them.
“I don’t feel discrimination from the hearts and minds of my fellow classmates so much as I do from the structure of the society and financial aid at Kenyon,” said Jacober, who works at Library and Information Services’ HelpLine and at the Writing Center as a consultant and student manager.
Lately, the issues surrounding that structure have been a common source of discussion. Earlier this week, a group of students posed questions on posters and in chalk on sidewalks challenging those structures, and next week’s Center for the Study of American Democracy (CSAD) conference will draw policymakers and scholars to the Hill to discuss economic inequality, further highlighting the issue.
But economic inequality is not just a theoretical matter to be debated by a panel of experts. It is as deeply embedded in the way Kenyon operates as Middle Path. Money is a factor in how students spend their time, where they eat, where they live. But it is largely undiscussed.
The tale of Kenyon’s economic divide can be told through raw numbers. Approximately 44 percent of students receive some form of need-based financial aid, with the average grant equaling $33,000 per year. The other 56 percent receive either some merit aid or none at all. Of the group receiving aid, 15 students pay the minimum contribution of $1,000 dollars, according to Director of Financial Aid Craig Daugherty. And when Kenyon’s admission committee makes its final judgments on an incoming class, the process is need-aware, meaning that a student’s financial need can affect his or her admission.
Each year, the work-study program issues about $300,000 of aid and Kenyon students borrow around $3,200,000 in loans from various sources. Approximately 15 percent of students receive some form of merit scholarship.
Nearly half the student body works a job on campus, and 159 of those are enrolled in work-study as a part of their financial aid package. Nationally, 87.7 percent of students at private four-year institutions received some kind of aid, according to a study done by the National Center for Education Statistics of the 2011-2012 academic year. Even so, Daugherty is pleased with how much aid Kenyon is able to offer. “Kenyon has always made a commitment to financial aid,” he said.
Compared to Oberlin College and Ohio Wesleyan University, Kenyon lags behind in how many students receive financial aid. Two-thirds of Oberlin students receive some kind of aid, as do 95 percent of students at Ohio Wesleyan.
“Have we always gotten everything we’ve asked for? No, but I think at the end of the day we’ve been treated fairly [as far as budget allocation],” Daugherty said, adding that Kenyon has committed over $28 million in institutional financial aid for next year.
Beyond the data, economic inequality at Kenyon is a deeply personal issue for many — and one that is frequently viewed as taboo on the Hill.
Voicing a sentiment echoed by many of his peers, Qossay Alsattari ’16 believes the community avoids talking about socioeconomic class at Kenyon “because it makes people uncomfortable.” Alsattari, one of the student organizers for next week’s CSAD conference, hopes it will spark conversation about issues of economic inequality.
But Andrew Gabel ’15, president of the Kenyon Republicans, questioned the consequences of making the discussion personal. “It’s well intentioned, this concern about inequality,” Gabel said. “But if you focus so much on how much does your mom make, how much does your dad make, I think we might inflame divisions that do not need to be inflamed and indeed should not be inflamed.”
Jon Green ’14, who edits the political journal The Kenyon Observer, claimed the American ideal of the “middle class” keeps people from wanting to discuss socioeconomic status. After working on President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, Green found that the popular definition of what it means to be middle class in the U.S. has little to do with one’s tax bracket. “In America, it is socially unacceptable to be anything but middle class,” Green said. “When upper class … students are told to be cognizant of the privileges that come along with [their] income bracket, there’s sort of an emotional reaction to push back against that, like ‘No, no, no, I’m just like you; why are we dividing?’”
Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Jennifer Delahunty said that in the admissions process, income diversity is as seriously considered as other factors, and officers look to admit students from across the economic spectrum. But resources are not unlimited. “The decision we’ve made philosophically is that instead of being need-blind we would meet 100-percent need [for] students we accepted,” Delahunty said.
Zachary Sawicki ’16, who grew up in nearby Apple Valley, had to adjust to Kenyon’s socioeconomic divide when he arrived on campus. Sawicki said that coming to Kenyon from East Knox High School was a bit of a culture shock. “I spent freshman year really dwelling on socioeconomic status and differences,” he said. “I think that no matter where we come from … maybe there’s certain things that I do that I’m not aware of, and you can attribute that to where I come from, and likewise there’s things that other people do that they’re not aware of.”
For some, economic inequality remains little more than a theoretical concept. “This is kind of a bubble,” Alex Ritter-Jenkins ’17 said. “I don’t think it affects us directly. … I think that’s the reason why people may not be as enthusiastic or as outspoken or as knowledgeable about it as they could be.”
Perspectives on College Policy
Visiting Instructor of Sociology Justin Schupp pointed out that because everyone has fairly equal access to campus resources, attention is more easily diverted away from economic differences. “You also have to keep in mind that you have the requirement here at Kenyon to be a full-time student,” Schupp said. “So you can’t follow the route that a lot of other folks take at bigger state schools of taking classes part-time and working part-time.”
Eli Fadil ’15 particularly took issue with tuition, which has risen roughly 10 percent since his first year. “It seems like it’s impossible to address [this] when there are bigger issues at hand, which is unfortunate, you know,” he said. “It’s not a position you want to be in as a student body.”
Despite being frustrated with what Kenyon offers, Jacober acknowledged the steps the College has taken toward equalizing opportunities for students, including instituting unpaid internship stipends and a new financial aid policy aimed at enabling all students to live in apartment housing senior year if they wish to do so.
Facing the Future
“The lion’s share of students on this campus don’t come from lower-class families,” Jacober said. He added that most students “haven’t been faced with the necessity to work three jobs on campus, … dealing with your father losing his job or watching your family tank in the midst of a crisis.[There is] a hell of a lot more Kenyon could do.”
Tracy Curtin ’14 is among those who are aware of these realities. She recognized that students who have to work at Kenyon, keep track of their payroll and deal with tuition bills have a different kind of day-to-day stress to deal with than many of their peers. “Kenyon allows us the luxury of putting aside a lot of these normal, but stressful, things in life,” Curtin said. “I guess what I’ve realized is that it’s easy to hide here, and maybe that is what makes it a problem.”