Response to need-aware policy

By Nolin Deloison

Last week, Maya Pisel wrote “The Need-aware Policy.” This opinion piece had surprisingly little to do with Macalester’s stance on need-blind admissions and everything to do with her apparent distaste for Mac’s “affluent students.” In an attempt to defend “poor kids,” she trivialized the importance of Mac’s financial aid policy and, in the process, succeeded in stereotyping every Mac student based on demographic.When it comes to socioeconomic diversity, Pisel concluded that Mac has bigger fish to fry than its financial aid policy, and thus shouldn’t lose sight of the broader picture by over-scrutinizing only one facet of the issue. This is perhaps true. Nevertheless, a suggestion that financial aid policy is trivial, in the scheme of things, was more likely the result of naivete. Regardless, the true issue at hand is Mac’s desire to foster an environment in which students from all walks of life are comfortable enough to discuss their wealth of diverse experiences. Pisel wrote, “The real barrier to diversity is that many affluent students have no stamina for authentic, uncomfortable differences.” Such stamina apparently shouldn’t be expected of everyone, though, as Macalester apparently forces “poor students [to] segregate themselves by speaking out.” This is an absurd double standard. More importantly, it pigeonholes students by ascribing to them socioeconomic stereotypes. This is clearly unfair, for neither wealth nor poverty account for one’s ability to confront uncomfortable differences. Not only a double standard and a stereotype, Pisel’s assertion about communication is simply untrue.

Macalester students, rich and poor alike, are often quite self-aware and many are more than willing to discuss their backgrounds with amazing candor. If a college where a displaced Palestinian can befriend an Israeli isn’t incredibly open to discussion, I don’t know where such a place exists. Misguided sensitivity results in stereotypes. Because these stereotypes appear well-intentioned, they are far more insidious than those stemming from the intolerance that Pisel suggests is intrinsic to privilege. If I were a ‘poor student’ (Full disclosure: I’m not), I would be quite reserved discussing my situation with someone who stigmatizes my background. Pisel’s suggestion that, in all likelihood, one of my parents is a “life-long drug addict” is an example just this.

Sensitivity implemented correctly, on the other hand, is not a bad thing, and this is perhaps why I have had some of the exchanges Pisel finds lacking at Mac. It has been my good fortune here to meet a student who grew up in a neighborhood not far from mine. It was thanks only to luck that I wasn’t mugged in this neighborhood, once, when a few friends and I were threatened with a gun. Violence is not uncommon in this neighborhood, and these days I try to avoid it. The student who grew up there has been more than forthcoming about growing up there. The aforementioned student’s family would be considered affluent in many of the countries Mac students hail from. Indeed, I’ve met a student whose entire nomadic family is illiterate, while they- thanks to Mac’s generosity-will see their child graduate from a respected college. Not only has this student been happy to discuss this “uncomfortable difference” with me, but also, said student likely benefits from Mac’s financial aid. I don’t doubt this student and others have experienced instances of discomfort due to socioeconomic background. This said, given openness that I have observed at Mac, I strongly disbelieve that such discomforts have made them unable to partake in Mac’s discourse. While the mentioned individuals’ life experiences cannot be purchased, others might characterize them as “poor kids” financially.

Unfortunately, it is mere reality that their wealth of experience cannot defray the cost of this college education. “Affluent students,” whose families pay full tuition, and the generosity of other affluent members of society, are largely those who make it possible for Mac to provide financial aid. For better or for worse, the adage about money not growing on trees holds true for Mac. As with most other private educational institutions, Mac depends on the affluent. While such dependence might affect Mac’s socioeconomic balance, this does not necessarily mean that Mac’s attitudes are particularly elitist. Indeed, the opposite appears to be more often the case than not.

Nolin Deloison ’12 can be reached at [email protected]