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Just how costly are luxury beliefs?

A middle-class student reflects on U of T’s socioeconomic divide
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In January of 2018, I was ecstatic to finish the ‘pledge’ process for a sorority on campus, in which I’d complete tasks to become a sister. That fall, my fellow pledges and I completed the final initiation step, a ceremony that we called ‘crossing.’ After the crossing, all of the new sorority sisters and our ‘big’ sisters piled into a few cars to go to a house party and celebrate the latest class of women joining the sisterhood. 

The conversations during the car ride, which marked my first attempts at connecting with my fellow sisters, made me feel out of place. We were riding in a black BMW SUV, and I distinctly remember the driver complaining about how she would have to go home early because her parents needed their vehicle back. She was upset with them, and all of my present sisters commiserated with her. How dare her parents not be more lenient? Didn’t they know how important this party was?

The conversation moved along, and we all told each other what we were studying and how far along in the program we were. Most of us who had just joined the sorority were in our first year. When the driver finally mentioned how far along she was, she said she was in her seventh year.  

I was awestruck. This woman didn’t have a job, used her parents’ BMW virtually anytime she wanted, and could afford to spend somewhere between six to 14 thousand dollars per year on her degree without having to graduate within the typical four years.

I would never be able to afford the extra yearly costs of tuition, incidental fees, and being out of the workforce, but the other women seemed to think all of this — being able to freely use an expensive car and take more money and time to finish a degree — was normal. 

After spending the night at that party, I came to understand that this mindset was not unusual at U of T; almost all of the sorority members’ parents paid for their education, and most members didn’t work themselves. They all had consistent access to vehicles to drive wherever they wanted to. I could not relate to them. 

After graduating high school, I had taken two years off before starting my degree, during which I worked to finance my education. My parents had encouraged me to pursue a career in the trades — in other words, not to waste my time and money at U of T — but I didn’t listen. I knew I wanted to go into politics and work in the federal public service. 

My experience as a first-generation university student required me to spend nearly $40,000 on my degree, and since my family didn’t have any connections to help me find a job in my chosen field after I graduated, I had no choice but to excel at U of T. Despite the hurdles, I was determined to pursue higher education in hopes that I could become successful in the workforce through my own merit.

Unlike my sorority sisters, whose degrees and lives were financed by their parents, I worked long hours during the school year, as well as during summer breaks, to pay for my classes. Working put constraints on time that I could have otherwise spent on extracurriculars and studying. It also made networking at school difficult.

My peers, on the other hand, could put hours of work into student government positions, athletic pursuits, case competitions, and unpaid internships that would bolster their résumés and allow them to make connections on campus. 

I found that with these practical differences came ideological ones too. Not only were my peers part of families that were more well off than mine, but they harboured opinions that fundamentally differed from the ones I held. 

Before university, I’d lived my life surrounded by ‘blue collar’ people. They were nice people whose lives I related to. They were people with ideas, problems, and perspectives I understood. 

To clarify, I’m not saying that my peers are not nice people; they are just people that I don’t understand. 

The invisible minority 

There are other first-generation U of T students like me, who are among the first of their family members to navigate the university environment. Perhaps university was also their first encounter with the luxury beliefs I discovered in my sorority sisters. 

First-generation students make up an invisible minority at U of T. Although U of T does not report on socioeconomic diversity among its students, it does report on how many first-generation students there are. In 2017, 17.6 per cent of students in their senior year were first-generation.  

According to an article by the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, first-generation students often feel guilty about seemingly rejecting their past, embarrassed about not fitting in, and confused about navigating university resources. They also experience anxiety in relation to finances, social inclusion, and academic achievement. When dealing with financial barriers to university activities, like expensive social events and study abroad opportunities, they often feel further isolated. 

When these students and other students from lower and middle classes encounter practical and ideological divides, these divisions add to the already existing challenge of navigating university life.

As a fourth-year student who has almost completed her degree, I am now in the process of applying for graduate programs and law school. Official demographic information is unavailable for the U of T master’s programs I applied to, but it is available for U of T Law. There, first-generation students are even more underrepresented than in the undergraduate student body: only 11 per cent of U of T’s 2021 Faculty of Law recruits are first-generation students

If I were to accept an offer from U of T Law or a master’s program at U of T, I expect that the divides I have encountered in my undergrad would follow me there and become even more pronounced.

In 2019, I read an article that struck a chord in me. Written by Rob Henderson, a graduate of Yale University and current PhD student at the University of Cambridge, and called “‘Luxury beliefs’ are the latest status symbol for rich Americans,” the article offers an explanation of the behaviours I was seeing at U of T, which fit the description of what Henderson describes as ‘luxury beliefs’: opinions that solidify the social statuses of the wealthy while negatively affecting the lower class. 

In his article, Henderson elucidates that luxury beliefs are replacing luxury goods, providing new ways for members of the upper class to signal their rank. He claims that there is immense psychological pressure to display one’s class status, but luxury goods have become more affordable and thus no longer signal this status like they once did. 

To get around this problem, Henderson wrote that upper-class individuals now espouse luxury beliefs — such as that we should legalize drugs or defund the police — to demonstrate their upper-class status. According to Henderson, this practice neglects the social structures and institutions that are often essential to the function of lower classes.

Like Henderson did, I am attending an elite school. Although it isn’t quite as esteemed as Henderson’s alma mater, U of T is known as the most prestigious university in Canada, and I believe the same social dynamics are at play here. Although there are no legacy programs at U of T, or ways for the university to establish who is or is not of the upper class, luxury beliefs seem to be alive and well on campus.

The ideological divide

In class, I’ve heard my peers voice several of their beliefs, such as that all drugs should be legalized, that all cops are bad, and that we should implement all sorts of utopian social programs to fix issues like homelessness, substance abuse, and carbon emissions. 

Unlike me, I don’t think they live in areas where the police are necessary to make sure muggings don’t occur, nor do I believe that they struggle financially to the degree that social programs like the ones they described would cause them existential dread because of the tax hikes that the government would need to implement to pay for them.

In my four years of study at U of T, I’ve come to realize that it isn’t just students that speak about and harbour these beliefs — some professors and teaching assistants do as well. I remember one of my teaching assistants leading a discussion about how prison is passé and how the focus should be on rehabilitating criminals in alternative settings. Another time, a professor spoke about how everyone should switch to driving electric vehicles, saying that if you don’t purchase an electric vehicle, you’re not doing your part to help fight climate change.

In both instances, I remember feeling like my instructors didn’t live on the same planet that I did. My first thought when I listened to the alternative ideas about prison rehabilitation centres was: where would these centres go? The government would probably place them where land is less expensive and where people of lower socioeconomic status live. 

In other words, these centres wouldn’t be anywhere close to affluent neighbourhoods. If this idea was to come to fruition, it would be in communities like mine. Criminals would be housed close to people who wouldn’t be able to afford to move elsewhere if they disliked the new arrangement. 

When I heard my professor discussing electric vehicles, my mind instantly started racing. Although I believe that we can all agree that doing our part to stop climate change is important, how many people can afford one of these cars? They usually cost between $30,000 to $40,000 off the lot. I can’t even afford to purchase a used car for $2,000 to $5,000 — forget spending $30,000. 

The Summer 2021 Financial Wellbeing Index for Canada created by LifeWorks estimates that one third of Canadians are living paycheque to paycheque, so it seems like a large proportion of Canadians who aren’t students wouldn’t be able to afford this luxury item either.  

While I could understand the underlying message of environmentalism that this professor was attempting to convey, I couldn’t grasp why they felt like they could judge people for not driving one of these expensive pieces of technology. 

Their words made it seem like they were judging people for the amount of disposable income they had, rather than whether or not they cared about the environment. It’s times like these where I felt that being less well off meant that I was looked down upon by others. 

Comments like these from my peers, teaching assistants, and professors made me feel out of place and like I didn’t belong at U of T. As I’ve reflected on these experiences and taken note of perspectives like Henderson’s, I’ve realized that I am not alone in feeling this way. Other first-generation students whose families are not affluent must also exist in this massive university and similarly feel left out. 

Lessening the divide

Why are the divides that I felt between myself and my peers and between myself and my teaching assistants and professors important? They’re important because, although we cannot change the practical divide I discussed, which stems from how my peers simply come from a different background than me, we can change the ideological divide that I found to be very isolating. 

U of T’s staff and faculty should realize that, in the representative sample of senior students, 17.6 per cent are first-generation, meaning that these students may come from dramatically different backgrounds than they do themselves. Although professors and teaching assistants at U of T are often brilliant, thought-provoking, and dedicated to helping students, they don’t always leave their upper-class biases at home. 

These biases, in addition to the luxury beliefs that they discuss in classes, can make less affluent students feel even more out of place in university than they otherwise would. These beliefs can also contribute to the stress that students face while navigating the university landscape.

The QS World Ranking has ranked U of T as the best university in Canada. While I do not believe for a moment that the socioeconomic divides here will ever cease to exist, luxury beliefs that signal their holder’s socioeconomic status shouldn’t be on display on our campuses. By leaving upper-class biases at home and limiting the dispersion of luxury beliefs, lower-class individuals will be able to feel more accepted in U of T’s community.

Lessons learned

Although socioeconomic status may not be visible at U of T, it does determine what you can and can’t spend time doing, what perspectives you share, and what virtues you signal. For students who aren’t beginning their degree straight out of high school, who struggle to afford tuition, and who are first-generation, the university environment can be alienating. The sharing of luxury beliefs by peers, faculty, and other university staff may all contribute to these feelings of isolation.

I don’t think that my sorority sisters, classmates, teaching assistants, or professors ever meant to make me feel out of place. They simply come from a different background than I do, and I don’t judge them based on that. Their luxury beliefs let them display their upper-class status and fit into the U of T community, which is marked by prestige and wealth. If I shared the privilege that allows them to hold these views, my thinking and actions would probably be similar to theirs.

My experience at U of T however, has made me painfully aware of the socioeconomic divide between the affluent and less affluent on campus. I hope that in sharing my story, I will help other students who may feel alienated realize, like I did, that they are not alone.

If, while speaking to your peers on campus, you find yourself unable to understand why you feel like you are from Venus while they are from Mars, perhaps you too have discovered this invisible divide. This contrast isn’t necessarily a bad thing — remember, there’s a price to pay when all members of the U of T community harbour and share the same opinions.

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