Editorial: Pay it forward

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Lehigh’s socioeconomic makeup is not reflective of the majority of the United States.

It’s common to see Range Rovers and Audis parked on the streets and students filling up their online shopping carts with $200 worth of clothing during class periods.

For students in organizations with date parties and formals, it is an unspoken expectation that women wear different dresses for every event.

Some students do not have to think twice about the amount of money they spend.

According to a study conducted by The New York Times, 67 percent of Lehigh students’ families made at least $110,000 a year. On the other hand, 2.5 percent of Lehigh students’ families made about $20,000 or less per year.

Imagine how different this environment must feel for that 2.5 percent of students.

The prevalence of wealth at Lehigh can be disorienting for students who step onto campus coming from first-generation or low to middle-income families — communities that are not constantly surrounded by opulence.

Some students from wealthier backgrounds, however, may not be aware of the Lehigh community’s lack of financial diversity.

However, every student on this campus has aligned interests — we are here to learn and grow, both academically and socially.

Students who are more financially secure may have no trouble purchasing expensive textbooks and academic supplies, while other students may scour the internet for the best deals, ending up with secondhand materials.

Students with higher spending habits may go out to dinner, go shopping or purchase drinks at the bar without having to bat an eye, while their peers might have to miss out on the social activity of the day because they cannot spend the extra cash.

Simply trying to fit in, whether in the classroom or the bar, might put students in debt.

There is an inner struggle for those who want to maximize their social experiences at Lehigh. Joining a Greek chapter for instance is an expensive activity.

For example, the cost of chapter dues per semester for initiated members of Theta Xi is $1,900 — the most expensive Lehigh Interfraternity Council chapter. The meal plan costs $2,000 adding up to almost $4,000 per semester.

Gamma Phi Beta’s semester chapter dues are $740 with a meal plan cost of $2,100 adding up to $2,840 — the most expensive chapter on the Panhellenic Council.

Students at this school who pay their own dues make a regular sacrifice from their bank accounts for their social lives.

However, Lehigh’s wealth disparity can also be framed in an impermanent way. College is supposed to be a vehicle for upward social mobility and Lehigh fulfills that role.

Out of the 2,137 colleges analyzed in The New York Times’ study, Lehigh was ranked 45 under the category “chance a poor student has to become a rich adult” at 57 percent. The broad network and alumni community that Lehigh offers can further help graduates leverage their career goals and economic status.

This is a motivation for students and their families to take out loans to pay for this education, or more broadly, the opportunity of upward mobility. Then, once graduates do advance they have the opportunity, the responsibility, to pay it forward.

Lehigh graduates have the ability to advance to the top of their fields, to be leaders and decision makers in powerful industries. When holding such power, awareness of the experiences of those different from you, makes you a better, more compassionate leader.

Regardless of post-graduation numbers, students face socioeconomic inequality today as they trudge through college. We all just need to be more aware of our differences.

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11 Comments

  1. Interesting editorial.

    I do believe that students who received aid should become contributors at their universities – there is a moral side to paying it forward.

    But many students receive no aid. Would you like them to contribute? If so should the university look down its collective nose and dismiss them as privileged rich white kids, take away greek life, and treat their tuition amount as the plug to balance the economic equation of LU? The answer is “no” they should not treat these students poorly but they have and the students read it and feel it every day. Students and their families do not feel the same ties and binds after this treatment that earlier generations felt – these students feel like the school is heading in a very different directions and one that is hostile to them.

    Good luck pumping up the endowment in 2038 primarily with the pay forward money.

    But do not delude yourself. At $65K per year plus I hope many families are earning at least $300K or more, otherwise why would their students not just attend their best state Universities. And likely a fair number earn $650K or more. You better hope so because rich people give the most $$$ to universities. And Lehigh is a luxury good – those are primarily consumed by rich people or people who save a lot.

    If LU wants to be successful increasing its endowment from the current students body it needs to create trust and respect with the affluent end of the student body. A group which is often a silent group though rather large. The admin should should stop its class warfare, left vs right push, reduce control over students out of the class room, and learn to control costs (value proposition needs to be there for those with no aid).

    • Embarrassed to Be Associated on

      I have been saying exactly that since my freshman orientation in 2002. To go to Lehigh as an actual upper class person (not upper-middle class–there is a distinction) is to be made uncomfortable at every turn.

  2. Amy Charles '89 on

    Well…that’s not even a start, this awareness that promises nothing. That’s a mid-afternoon nap on the sunny lawn of a $67K-per-year campus.

    Consider this: if you’re at Lehigh now, your parents likely went to college and graduated in the 80s or 90s, after the Republicans had razed the tax structure but not yet dismantled fully the social programs that had made it possible for Boomers and GenXers to grow up pretty nicely. So they’d grown up benefiting from relatively well-funded schools, low tuitions, taken-for-granted healthcare, lots of public amenities, and a society in which welfare didn’t look like Depression-era pictures and few schools had to consider homeless populations — but as they went off to work they also benefited from a new, Boomer-written tax code that ensured they definitely would not have to pay it forward. On the contrary. They’d keep it, and keep it, and keep it. And if their parents were wealthy and friendly, then boy howdy, it was just a carnival of money. You never saw so many international vacations in your life.

    And that was your childhood.

    If you think of Piketty’s famous graph, your parents graduated just after wealth disparity hit its nadir in the US, and then enjoyed that terrific swing to the top. And that’s why you live so nicely, even though most other people really, really don’t.

    So if you’re going to be thoughtful about this, what do you do? Well, you do what Warren Buffett does. You say, “This is insane and socially destructive, and I don’t need all this money, and I should be taxed more.” If you, hearing that, are suddenly clutchy and thinking, “But I don’t have as much money as Warren Buffett!” then you, my friend, are part of the problem. Because you probably have, and probably always will have, many multiples of enough. You can be taxed more, and your parents can be taxed more, and you’ll all still be rich.

    How rich would you be under a pre-Reagan tax regime, one in which Pell grants were restored to their former glory and a kid could earn the year’s college tuition mowing lawns in the summer?

    Well, it costs me, conservatively speaking, about $3K a month to live and raise a child. I’m pretty sure you’d do considerably better than that even if you were taxed with Carteresque ferocity, which you never will be. On $3K/mo, I own a house with a nice little yard, apple trees, gardens, all that sort of thing. A Volvo wagon that’ll probably run until gasoline engines are outlawed. We live nicely enough: we travel, eat good food, go to shows and restaurants, do sports, have too many pairs of shoes, the kid went to summer camp, all the middle-class usual. I have retirement savings (not figured into the $3K), and my kid has college savings.

    How, you ask, am I able to work this magic on so little money?

    Taxes. Taxes mean that unlike most of what used to be the middle class, we don’t live in some sort of hand-to-mouth, debt-ridden fear. I don’t have to worry about any of the big four American expenses: healthcare, education, housing, or transportation.

    Healthcare: I have excellent healthcare benefits thanks largely to a public union I’m not part of, but work alongside. Recently I had an MRI, and in the middle of the MRI, I panicked, because it had been so long since I’d thought about healthcare costs that I realized I’d forgotten to investigate MRI costs. I’d just gone and done what the doctor said. I got the EOB today: my share of the $5700 bill is $67. My daughter’s orthodontia cost me about $1600, rather than the full-price $4500. Apart from that I can’t remember the last time I paid serious money for healthcare. (Does that mean I go stuffing myself at the healthcare buffet? Uh, no. I always thought this was weird, this vision of people spending their afternoons in doctor’s offices just feasting on all that sweet, sweet healthcare.) We also have the tertiary hospital nearby with the ginormous-Tesla MRIs and a crazy number of specialists per capita because this is where the state’s tax-supported medical school is.

    Education: People in this area care about education and vote routinely to spend money on it, and the state, in more enlightened times, instituted redistributive school taxes. So not only do we have very nice public schools with all the AP courses and electives and manicured sports fields you might want, meaning I haven’t paid any school tuition since preschool days, but there’s no housing-price craziness around “good schools”, and there are no local schools you’d be anxious about sending your kids to. Which is why there actually aren’t many places locally to spend money on school — there’s a Montessori, a Catholic school, a hippie school, a Quaker boarding school a good drive away, and that’s about it. I also have no college debt of my own, though I did at one time have a $9K student loan. That was it. I have three degrees. I’ve gone to college recreationally. Worst-case for my daughter, for college, is that she goes to the local R1 state university (more taxes!), where full-freight tuition costs about $9K/yr, and lives at home for a year or two. I’m fairly certain she’ll come out of school with less than $10K in tax-supported loans, possibly debt-free.

    Housing: Again, there’s no “good school” housing-price bidding wars here thanks to public willingness to spend on education and spend equitably, nor is there a giant stolen-wealth concentration swamping the housing market, so my mortgage is under a thousand dollars a month on a three-bedroom house with 2-car garage. I should be able to pay it off ahead of schedule, well before I retire. Property taxes are relatively high for this area, but I don’t mind paying them, since it all comes out in the wash: the city’s well-maintained and has excellent recreation centers, libraries, farmers’ markets, festivals, youth and family programs, elder-services programs, free health clinics, water quality, emergency services, and other civic facilities and programs — including home-repair and home-purchase block grants and sustainability programs — and most people seem to use at least some of them.

    Transportation: I usually spend less than $50/mo on my car, including gas and insurance. That’s because it’s 18 years old, I bought it for cash, it’s in good shape thanks to smart state-college-educated mechanics, and I seldom use it anyhow. There’s a city bus stop across the street (taxes!), sidewalks all around (more taxes!), a shopping center half a mile away down a pleasant walking path, and work about 3.5 mi away — close enough to run, walk, or bike in. My walk in, by the way, takes me past a tax-supported housing project. It’s well-maintained, well-policed. Lots of immigrants. Not at all alarming to walk past. If I ride the bus instead, it takes about 15-20 minutes to get there. I have a subsidized bus pass as an employee benefit. My daughter walks to school, bikes to work, and has a bus pass, and while she’d like a car, she doesn’t need one and would rather save her money for college. Walkability and biking are important to people who live here, and the tax-paid, often publicly-educated city planners plan accordingly.

    In other words, thanks to taxes thoughtfully levied and distributed, I pay far less than the average American for the non-food basics, and my daughter has grown up pleasantly deluded that a middle class still exists in this country, with middle-class aspirations. I have no debt beyond my mortgage; we have college savings; I’ll probably have enough retirement savings to retire all right; and I’ve got all kinds of insurance, including disability and excellent health insurance. That’s on a pretax equivalent of about $45-50K/yr, less than median household income.

    This pleasant world, one in which there’s time for education and music and exercise and timely medical care and all kinds of nice things, could belong to tens of millions more American if one thing happened. If you, and people like you, were willing to roll back the wealth-concentrating tax reforms that began in the 1980s. If you were willing to have somewhat less, which you probably wouldn’t even notice, considering how much you start with, and considering that when public facilities are nice, rich people use them too.

    Then you wouldn’t have to be all pious about noticing the poor among you at college, because they wouldn’t be that poor, and they wouldn’t have to lose circulation in their hands hanging onto those scholarships.

    So sure, go ahead, notice. And then start looking at tax brackets. Nevermind your parents’ screaming in the background, they’re fine.

    • Current Student on

      Money is evil, money is bad, I don’t like my money so instead of giving to to charity I’ll force everyone to give it to the government. Amy, as a liberal, do you REALLY trust Trump to spend tax money well?

      You seem to love taxes but likely hate the fact that they are going to build a wall? Maybe lowering taxes and letting you decide what happens with your own money sounds better now.

      • Amy Charles '89 on

        Money is neither evil nor bad. Money allows us great flexibility in exchange of goods and services, and, properly controlled by well-regulated central banks and legislatures unwilling to succumb to economic fantasy, is a buffer against economic collapse. The hoarding of a society’s wealth by a few, however, is demonstrably destructive and antidemocratic, time and again.

        If you’re fervently anti-tax, you should probably leave Lehigh, which could not survive without federal student loan programs, tax exemptions that amount to a subsidy, and the bits of federal research money it wins. I mean I suppose it could survive without the tax bonanza by jacking tuition on remaining students much higher: you could keep yourself honest by voluntarily paying the unsubsidized rate. As things stand, you’re a current beneficiary, just like everyone else at Lehigh.

        You wouldn’t happen to be related to this Greenwood Hall person, would you?

  3. Embarrassed to Be Associated on

    Meanwhile, the parents making the most end up paying for everyone else’s tuition.

    • Amy Charles '89 on

      It’s so weird. I keep thinking, “Rich people aren’t all hideously ungrateful, blind to the rest of the world and selfish, that’s a terrible stereotype.” And then I come here.

      • Current Student on

        Right, because when one “rich” person makes a factual statement, that means all rich people are greedy.

        If I’m being honest, that sounds really intolerant and prejudiced to me.

        • Amy Charles '89 on

          Well, Embarrassed got it partly right. The richest parents do pay something towards everyone else’s education. The part that Embarrassed conveniently leaves out is that the rest of us do, too — even those of us who’ll never send a kid to Lehigh, or never even went to college. Embarrassed also leaves out the question of how those parents came to be so rich over the last forty years: who paid for them to have all that money.

          My guess is that Embarrassed wouldn’t be very happy about doing that math, because the picture that would emerge would be stark: rich parents are rich in part because they pay much, much less than they used to for other people’s educations, and the societal effects of that have not been good at all. And yet here’s Embarrassed up there, utterly un-self-aware, still complaining away about rich people voluntarily spending a fortune on their own kids’ private education.

          What about you, though? Aren’t you grateful yet for the public welfare you receive at Lehigh?

          I live in a state where three-quarters of the citizens haven’t been to college. Of those who have, the vast majority went to public universities, nothing so fancy as Lehigh. Similar things can be said of the citizenry of almost every other state in the union — and most of them pay taxes.

          They haven’t had the benefit of a small, upscale university with a charmingly wooded mock-Ivy campus, but their tax money, and their kids’ tax money, goes in part to support Lehigh students’ loan programs, and Lehigh faculty and admins’ federal grants, and the cost of all the tax breaks Lehigh gets by virtue of its nonprofit status, including tax breaks on its endowment. (You’d have to look into whether there are public tax subsidies paying part of the cost of employing your professors and staff, too, particularly when it comes to healthcare plans and retirement benefits.) The City of Bethlehem, likewise, is not noted for its Lehigh-scale wealth, but its citizens pay for police to deal with party after party, mess after mess, fight after fight. I have a feeling their citizens are also going to be paying with TIF money for the public-private partnerships designed to benefit Lehigh primarily as it takes over more of South Bethlehem. Double bonus for Lehigh in any nonprofit-based federal tax benefits it gets from those properties.

          Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that the rest of the residents of Bethlehem will have to make up whatever property taxes Lehigh doesn’t pay, but is taking off the tax rolls. Again, I pay inflated taxes here as a resident of a university town, but the difference is that this is a major public research institution and hospital. I actually get the benefit of using the place, whether or not I’m affiliated with the university. No campus cop is there to throw me off of private nonprofit grounds. I can use the gyms, the libraries, go to the lectures, have a nice medical procedure, whatever. Meanwhile, you’d be screaming bloody murder if South Bethlehem showed up at your gym and in your lectures…but they’re still paying your property taxes.

          Also don’t forget why Lehigh has this substantial endowment in the first place: donor tax benefits. I don’t know whether those made it into the last tax bill, but every gift through 2017 has been padded and incentivized by that public tax subsidy.

          So if you are going to be honest about your position, now is the time to forgo all that welfare and stand on your own two feet. You’ll have a little work to do to figure Lehigh’s annual tax-and-grants breaks, but…well, let’s see. About 7K students, and if you add in the effects of the public student-loan programs, and tax incentives for gifts to Lehigh…just wild-swinging here, but if I had to guess, I’d guess you’re getting a subsidy of about $3-10K a year, courtesy of the American/PA/local taxpayer. Who probably hasn’t even been to college, let alone a ritzyroo place like Lehigh, and who certainly isn’t welcome on campus. It’d be an interesting exercise to figure it out.

          (Personally, I am happy to help subsidize your education; I am happy to subsidize everyone’s education. You get a better society to live in that way. I would prefer that you used the subsidy at a public university, but if you want to port that sum over to a private, I don’t mind, so long as it doesn’t endanger the wellbeing of the publics. Notice, by the way, that I don’t harrumph around like the curiously ill-named Embarrassed does: I don’t say that “I’m paying for” your education. I’m helping to pay for. Lots of other people are also helping to pay for it. Including, I hope, you.)

          As for the misery of stereotyping, it would appear that in this case the plural of anecdote is anecdata: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-wealth-reduces-compassion/ .

          Happy summer.

          • Embarrassed to Be Associated on

            My parents paid sticker-price for me to go to Lehigh which was a complete and utter waste of their money and four years of my life that I will never get back. The only reason I didn’t transfer out was because it was, at the time, still a good brand name. I only ended up there because after 9/11, my dad thought it would be a great idea to avoid major cities for a little while, despite us being native New Yorkers. I pity anyone who thinks such a mediocre institution is anything more than what it is, and no one worked harder than my father did. On top of being a child of the 1%, I probably could have gotten into any university I wanted based on my own merit. I graduated from one of the best prep schools in the country and received one of the top awards upon graduation.

            Your jealousy of successful people is showing but if your experience at Lehigh was the zenith of your life, kudos, I guess.

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