Dissecting the Middle Class: How Status is Perceived at One of the World’s Most Expensive Universities

As Korey Elizabeth Rushing-Parker began one of the sixteen college admission applications she would submit by the end of her senior year of high school she felt confident about her future. To the outside eye, her 3.98 GPA, multiple extra-curricular activities, and the fact that she was raised by lesbian parents seemed to make her a “unique” and viable candidate for any university. As a young woman with theatrical aspirations New York University was a dream school, however after receiving her acceptance letter, she soon realized that memorizing lines would be the least of her worries.

With tuition costs roughly between $43,746 – $59,337 per year, NYU is ranked as the second most expensive university it the world, trailing behind Sarah Lawrence College at $61,236. Heard as the most common campus complaint and “joke”, NYU students from all socioeconomic backgrounds are more than aware of the financial burden taken on once accepting a spot in NYU’s student body. However, the discomfort associated with both the lower and upper classes has given rise to the increasingly popular socioeconomic labels: “Upper-Middle” and “Lower-Middle” class among NYU social circles, making the differences in friend groups more obvious than ever.

“Though I may not have a lot of money, Melinda (her non-birth mother) and I have always found a way to survive,” said Rushing Parker, who’s adopted mother had to sell her house last year in order to cover the tuition costs not covered by her $28,000 scholarship. Although she labels her family as “lower-middle” class, Rushing-Parker switched from Tisch’s Drama Department to the Theatre Design Department to ensure more job prospects after graduation.

“I have faith that the universe will guide you, but you must actively pursue dreams to move forward, I don’t see it as sacrifice, just evolution in life,” Rushing-Parker said.

Because scholarships and loans are a typical path taken by 61% of NYU students, they are not a defining characteristic of one’s socioeconomic situation at home. And while the widening gap between social classes continues to be a national discussion, most students agreed that although it’s not an often spoken opinion, discussing the socioeconomic gap between NYU students is a known taboo.

Jordan Spayd, a 20-year-old aspiring film cinematographer and writer, is able to attend NYU through a $22,000 Tisch scholarship and financial assistance from extended family members; and while Spayd says he feels secure in his friend group, he prefers to avoid conversations that are financially focused.

“It’s one of those topics that’s always kind of awkward,” explains Spayd, “I’ll talk about finances occasionally with friends, but even then it’s mostly just telling them when I’m too broke to do something.”

Similar to the stereotypical embarrassment that many might expect lower classes to have in regards to their monetary situation, very few students are willing to discuss their family life coming from the other extreme of the spectrum.

While Spayd feels comfortable in saying that his family is firmly in the middle class, he said he believes the majority of people, particularly NYU students do not know what being in middle class America actually means.

“There’s too much confusion as to how these terms are defined, a lot of jobs that used to be upper class are skipping into middle class and a lot of jobs that used to be middle class are slipping into lower class,” Spayd said, “Really the terms should be more consistent with the state of families.”

Spayd is not alone in his belief that those who were once seen as the middle class are now finding themselves sinking into lower socioeconomic standings. Los Angeles native Marilyn La Jeunesse used to live in a three roomed apartment with her single mom and younger sister and describes her situation as “a family below the poverty level”, however she says that she does not believe the class problem exists from a paycheck stand point, but merely an imbalance between what Americans are being paid and what they are being asked to pay.

“There is a minimal distinction between the lower and middle classes because of how expensive everything is. If you aren’t wealthy, odds are you are limited in your choices whether it be university, hobbies, or vacations,” La Jeunesse said.

She also said that the differences of finances affected her personal relationships at the school due to her inability to be able consistently join friends for nights out that could include anything from $10 cover charges to $25 cocktails.

“There are only two distinctions (of class at NYU): poor and rich. The poor only see ungrateful rich kids, and the rich kids are unaware that poor kids attend the school,” La Jeunesse said.

Recent NYU graduate, Cyrah Franklin is the eldest of three children from a family in East Texas and describes her financial status as one of the “lower-middle” class, said that she believed there were a full range of economic classes at the university, but that how that could be taken was a matter of personal perception.

“Living in a very expensive city and going to a very expensive college can skew the perspective for what is normal, but most people I have met do not judge based on money. I tend to surround myself with good people in general though so it’s possible this is not indicative of the entirety of NYU,” Franklin said.

While students have varying opinions on what defines classes in the microcosm of New York University, almost everyone had the same answer when asked what could be done to lessen the financial variances within the American public, how to, quite literally, “save the middle class”?

“Beats me.”

“If only I knew.”

Jeff Thomson, a 21-year-old Political Science major from an “upper-middle” class San Diego family, was able to give a slightly more impassioned opinion.

“Start taxing the rich more and the capital that they own! When the top 1% has more wealth than the bottom percents (sp)- that is not only morally wrong but also financial stupid,” said Thomson, “It’s a joke to believe that the rich are job creators and that is why they need the lowest taxes possible.

Although taxing America’s wealthiest families seems to be the easiest go to answer for many when faced with the task of closing the class gap, not everyone shares the opinion that it is the job of the wealthy to take care of others.

“I feel like there’s some silent judgment against those who are wealthier, like it’s a bad thing to be rich,” said Rushing-Parker, “We don’t owe them anything, so why do we feel the upper class owes us anything? People are so going to hate me for saying that.”

 

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