Letter to the Editor: the Need-aware policy

By Maya Pisel

It seems as if many Macalester students, and certainly The Mac Weekly, can’t get angry enough about the college’s need-aware policy. But the fact that number of students receiving financial aid has not dramatically decreased since need-blind was revoked suggests that something deeper is keeping Macalester from feeling economically diverse.

A need-blind policy may make middle-class and affluent Macalester students feel more inclusive, but it is unlikely to substantively change the impact of economic diversity on campus. The real barrier to diversity is that many affluent students have no stamina for authentic, uncomfortable differences. Coming face to face with the complications and implications of poverty in the United States is much more difficult than rallying for a larger financial aid budget.

There is a generally shameful difference between needing financial aid and being poor. The difference between needing work-study and needing electricity subsidies, between subsidized federal loans and free school lunch, between a parent who was laid off in the recession and one who is a life-long drug addict is one that I have yet to hear addressed in the need-aware debate. If we acknowledge that nobody is embarrassed to have work-study or loans whereas the poor voice is largely absent and silent at Macalester, then “economic diversity” becomes about making daily space for domestic poverty.

As long as prosperity remains the assumed default perspective in the classroom and amongst most students, the burden will continue to fall on students whose families live in poverty to isolate themselves by acknowledging or asserting their difference.

Authentic dialogue cannot occur in an environment where poor students must segregate themselves by speaking out about their closeness to the subjects studied in classes, donated to by student orgs, and discussed as civic issues. It cannot occur when they face awkward silences, giggles, gawking or fascination because their experience is so foreign, because poverty is assumed to be a personal problem or because, frankly, a lot of things that poor kids do are looked down upon or joked about. These reactions are why the very hierarchies of scarcity, shame, and class that define domestic poverty are largely replicated within the Macalester community.

Poor students are not just rich ones with less money; they should not be expected to act and think from inside Macalester’s framework of privilege when it does not describe their reality. There must be space for poor students to present dynamic and varied experiences that are much more than tragic exceptions or personal struggles to achieve.

If there was space for this dialogue, affluent students might learn why true economic diversity is such a lofty and unattainable goal – because the biggest obstacle of poverty is not affording college but affording a life that prepares a student for college. Last week’s staff editorial blithely suggests that returning to a need-blind policy would make sure “that students from every background and every country could come together to get an education for the sake of a better world.” If only the world was so easily fixed by one college’s financial aid policy.

Should Macalester be need-blind? Probably. But in the meantime there are much more important things to complain about. If affluent students really care about economic diversity, they will give Brian Rosenberg a break and instead make space for domestic poverty in every conversation and classroom.

Maya Pisel ’13 can be reached at [email protected]