The Silent Struggles of Stanford’s Middle Class

By Kayley Miller

“Just because I’m not on aid does not mean I can afford the experience … It’s frustrating to be in the middle, and not have many people get that.” Statements like these from the “Stanford Class Confessions” Facebook page suggest a lack of understanding about the issues that students from different socioeconomic backgrounds face at Stanford. One group whose struggles go particularly unheard is the middle class.

More than half of the United States population characterizes itself as middle class, whether by way of life or income. Within the umbrella term “middle class,” distinctions between lower and upper middle class can seem arbitrary to some, but for families sending their children to college, they can be the difference between a generous financial aid package and none at all. Accounting for the varying cost of living across the US, middle class incomes range from $40,000 to $250,000. While broad, this income includes approximately 30% of Stanford’s population.

Even though the middle class forms such a large part of Stanford’s student body, the financial hardships of middle class Stanford students are underrepresented in campus conversations. Middle class students rarely speak about how their decision to matriculate to Stanford led their families to take on the strain of hefty tuition bills or even student loans.

At Stanford, students from families with income less than $125,000 pay no tuition and those with income less than $65,000 do not pay tuition or living expenses. Students who fall above this bracket often face a difficult choice; they earn enough money so that Stanford does not offer significant financial aid, but they certainly do not earn enough to pay in full. Many decide not to matriculate at Ivy-Plus universities such as Stanford, for fear of burdening their families financially. Those who do, often confront significant loans for years after graduation; 21% of Stanford students graduate with debt. The financial stress of the price tag of higher education may influence where a student chooses to matriculate or what they choose to study. Consequently, middle income students can feel pressured to major in a more practical or lucrative discipline in an aim to quickly pay off their loans.

Being a member of the middle class was once the greatest symbol of the American Dream — knowing that hard work and education could pay big dividends. Moving up this social income ladder is no longer guaranteed. Now students doubt whether their hard work will result in upward mobility.

The concerns students may have when projecting about future incomes are well founded. According to the findings of The Equality of Opportunity Project, spearheaded by Stanford professor Raj Chetty, there is only a 50% chance that people born in 1980 will rank higher in the income distribution than their parents. Certainly, over the past seven decades, the likelihood that an American will financially outperform their parents has consistently decreased among all income ranks — particularly the middle class. For the middle class, the American Dream is waning.

Even middle class students at top universities can struggle. From the perspective of a prospective middle class student, it is grueling to decide whether the value of an elite education outweighs its cost. Throughout the college application process, I thought about this tradeoff often. I still sometimes wonder whether I made the right choice. Instate tuition would have come without student loans and with a sense of home. Was an elite school truly worth the distance, the effort, and financial commitment when I could get a good education at home for a fraction of the cost? Between the scholarships and tuition discounts of in-state universities, and the allure of Stanford, I was truly torn.

I accepted my admittance to Stanford and everything that came with it. I don’t regret coming to Stanford in the slightest, but my experiences and education have come with a price; I have already initiated a plan to pay off student loans.

Worrying about student loans or your family’s financial standing is not a topic of discussion in the dining hall, but why is it so taboo? These thoughts exist, and voices must be heard when we discuss socioeconomic diversity on campus. University-facilitated conversations about socioeconomic diversity, whether through a speaker at FACES, events at New Student Orientation, or dorm discussions throughout freshman year, ought to voice concerns of middle class students. There is both a space and need for discussion. Students from all financial backgrounds, not just those at extremes of the income spectrum, should feel at home on the Farm.