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We have a long history in America of pretending that there is no class structure. If you ask students to identify their family by class, they all say “middle-class.” I, however, teach on the “Gold Coast” of Long Island where the Fricks, Vanderbilts, and Morgans owned big properties and yachts. There is no question that they never thought of themselves as middle-class. Indeed, Joan Harrison, my colleague in the Photography Department, just produced a wonderful photo-history of a city near campus—Images of America: Glen Cove (Arcadia Publishing, 2008)—showing a distribution of population from the robber barons to waves of Italian and Hispanic immigrants to the descendants of freed slaves in our region. Since this city is typical of our campus population, the question raised about class and honors at my university can be seen as having both ethnic and historic complexity.
The mission statement of Long Island University includes the twin poles of “access” and “excellence.” To be sure, euphemisms abound therein! The word “access” alludes to the great percentage of our students who are first-generation college-goers. They come from extremely diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. What they have in common are parents who rarely had the opportunity to go to college and are therefore willing to pay (often at great sacrifice) for a high-priced, private-college education that they perceive as helping their children rise up the ladder of class. The adjusted gross income of families at my campus is $70,850. Typically, the families of my students have two or three children either in college or getting ready for college. A tuition bill of close to $35,000 leaves just half of the total annual income to pay for everything else, unless, of course, there are two children in college— which would leave nothing. Scholarships are therefore essential.