Thursday, April 27, 2006

How the American Dream and wearing Prada are (not) connected

Before I started college, I had it in my head that the average student became accustomed to a modest living. I had visited my Dad's alma mater and seen his hole-in-the-wall apartment, and I had heard about the high tuition bills that would come with attending a reputable university. College did not seem a time to make luxury purchases. Imagine my surprise then, when I arrived on campus and saw students with pricy Longchamp bags, designer jeans, and sizable shoe collections. This, I thought, is college? Not that I deny my own love for clothes and shopping, but I had never imagined Prada to be part of the college student's wardrobe.

Yesterday a friend pointed me to an article that explicates what many of us have thought true for a long time: that the American Dream that one can succeed through hard work and ingenuity in this country, no matter how destitute he may be at the beginning of his life, is now mostly a myth. This article spotlights a study of 4,000 children whose parents' income had been monitored first in 1968 and whose own incomes were then examined approximately 30-years later. Furthermore, the likelihood of someone born into a poor family making it into the top 5 percent is much less here than in other countries. For those born into wealth, their chances of getting rich are considerably higher: they are 20 percent more likely to make it into the top 5 percent than their poor counterparts.

How better to cap off this finding than with an article featured in a special pullout section on college education in the New York Times? This article, called "What they're Wearing at..." features several Columbia University students. One woman is shown wearing "vintage boots and a Ferragamo bag found in Paris and a Valentino scarf bought on a deep discount in Lower Manhattan," a man is shown wearing a jacket "bought with an assist from a personal shopper." As he puts it: "My mother told me to go to Bloomingdale's and treat myself." Another fashionably dressed young man "exchanged a gift from his 'well-intentioned' sister for his Prada sunglasses." Columbia's style editor at the campus paper is quoted as saying that the university" is a "place where privilege and experience meet." She's at least right about the former.


Steph said...

I can attest to the profile of Columbia students...yikes. Imagine being from a working class background and trying to fit in with this crowd. I certainly felt that discomfort at NU, but to a lesser extent. It wasn't just about clothes was a larger issue of lifestlye. I remember during rush how difficult it was to connect with girls who spoke about their extensive travels and activities which could only be enjoyed with those who have a certain amount of financial and social capital. But that extends beyond the greek system into everyday college life and beyond in the working world. What's especially difficult about this feeling of exclusion is that college is a time where we're looking for people to fit in with as a way to explore and affirm our identity...but when most of the people around you don't look or act like you, it can be a lonely experience.

There's a nice piece from a working-class student from Yale who wrote about her experience in a culture of affluence and privilege:

Elaine said...

Yeah, agreed. To a large extent, what sort of social life one has at college is dependent on their ability to afford it. It's always weird to see caricatures from childhood--like the rich frat guys, mostly all-white, etc. --actually played out. I was just talking with a friend from my high school about how lucky we were because it was just assumed we would not only go to college but go to what are considered great schools by most of the country. Put some of the kids from my high school into a counterpart with few resources and poorly paid teachers, and I'm sure they would have been lucky to end up at community college. I just hope the increasing lack of social mobility becomes an issue in the next election, because it is more and more palpable. I think rich and poor alike should embrace a more mobile society just in the interest of fairness.