WU/FUSED student survey finds socioeconomic diversity lacking

| Contributing Reporter
(Brittany Meyer | Student Life)

(Brittany Meyer | Student Life)

The average household income of a Washington University undergraduate student is around $180,000, according to a recent survey of 520 undergraduates conducted by Washington University Students for Undergraduate Socioeconomic Diversity.

The survey also found that many University students self-identify in social classes lower than the ones in which members of the group (WU/FUSED) classify them.

According to group co-chair senior Fernando Cutz, WU/FUSED uses U.S. Census Bureau data to define “lower class” as the 15 percent of Americans who make the least amount of money, “middle class” as the middle 70 percent, and “upper class” as the top 15 percent. Based on 2006 census data, WU/FUSED defines students from households with an income greater than $104,000 as upper class.

By this definition, 44 percent of University students are upper class, but only 8.3 percent of students self-identify as such, according to the survey.

“This shows that socio-economic diversity is not only severely lacking at Wash. U. as compared to our society at large (and as compared to other universities around the country), but that we as a student body aren’t adequately aware of this or of our own place in this,” Cutz wrote in an e-mail.

According to James Morley, associate professor of economics, comparing the average household income of University students with the national average can be misleading. Morley said a better comparison would be between the average undergraduate household and the average household with children going to college.

“The national average covers a huge range of different types of households, including retirees, younger families,” Morley said. “Typically, household income is highest—in the life-cycle sense—when people are middle-aged and when their children are around college-aged.”

The survey also found that while only 52 percent of students self-identify as “upper middle class,” 76 percent believe the average University student falls under this category.

In other words, many students self-identify in a class lower than the one they perceive to be the average social class of University students.

(Brittany Meyer | Student Life)

(Brittany Meyer | Student Life)

The survey was conducted using the online survey tool StudentVoice. Students were recruited for the survey through e-mails sent out to the student body by class presidents.

The survey drew roughly 60 percent female and 40 percent male respondents from all four years, with about 25 percent sophomores and seniors, 33 percent freshmen and 17 percent juniors. Respondents were given the opportunity to check multiple ethnicities in the survey, and out of 520 responses, the students identified as 65 percent white/Caucasian, 13 percent Asian, 9 percent black/African American and 5 percent Hispanic.

WU/FUSED members on socioeconomic diversity

Members of WU/FUSED say they want to stimulate conversations about socioeconomic diversity on campus.

“I think that ‘socioeconomic’ is sometimes a taboo to talk about anywhere, and so the issue of socioeconomic diversity is not touched by the administration and by the students, but it is a very important aspect of diversity,” said sophomore Kirsten Miller, a WU/FUSED member.

Some suggest that the University’s steep tuition label deters students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds from applying.

“The sticker shock is something that scares students a lot,” said senior Chase Sackett, co-chair of WU/FUSED. “But for most of these private institutions like Washington University, it is actually cheaper for the average student to attend one of these schools because of the financial aid, which students are often not aware of.”

In an effort to increase socioeconomic diversity at the University, WU/FUSED plans to educate high school students about financial options and work with organizations such as Student Financial Services to make the University seem more welcoming to these students.

“By making it comfortable enough an institution that they can come and ask questions and actually apply, that’s the first step to actually increase socioeconomic diversity on campus,” said sophomore Betel Ezaz, WU/FUSED member.

Beyond targeting students from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, WU/FUSED also aspires to raise awareness about socioeconomic diversity among the entire student body.

In addition to conducting the survey, WU/FUSED will connect with cultural, religious and international student groups and service groups such as Lock & Chain, Alpha Phi Omega and Each One Teach One to promote awareness about socioeconomic diversity.

“Our goal is really to reach out to other groups and try to co-sponsor events so that we are reaching a broader segment of our campus than us by ourselves can reach,” Cutz said.

With many future plans ahead, WU/FUSED shares the inspiration for and the importance of their endeavor.

“Sometimes it is hard to make people care about an issue, but the first step is to make sure that they are aware,” Ezaz said. “Awareness can pique interest and start the conversation we need on campus.”

Morley supports the efforts of WU/FUSED, saying: “There is a danger of too little diversity; college can become a bubble where people don’t see the full extent of the economic struggles that the broader population is going through, especially at a time like now with the recent severe economic recession.”

  • JMS

    And about cost of living – yes that is certainly a confounding issue. A more comprehensive study would want to take that into account, though it’d still be tricky (city vs. suburbs of the same metro area? – unless COL indices account for that). With that said, tuition is still a lump sum, and the same for everyone before financial aid kicks in, so everyone’s facing the same cost figure at first.

  • JMS


    The graph *did* account for non-response. Note the asterisk in the bottom right that says “27.39% of students responded that they did not know”.

    Also I think their choice of using different sized ranges is somewhat justified. The difference in lifestyle (perhaps the larger implicit question the survey was addressing) can increase greatly with a 20k jump from 60k to 80k a year, but not so much from 160k to 180k, and less yet say, from $1,060,000 to $1,080,000.

    Breaking up the groups the way they did – even if another 50k sized bin could have ended up with a larger share of the respondents – still makes some sense because a single group for 100k-150k is more meaningful in terms of the larger implied question – lifestyle and ability to afford a WashU education – than a 50-100k group (especially since tuition is something of a fixed sum, unless one’s financial aid greatly mitigates that). Unless that is, there was a large subcluster say, at 100k-120k. That might have justified a 100k-120k of its own, but the surveyors couldn’t have foreseen that.

    Certainly methodological issues such as student information of their parents’ income is a concern, but that is true of any survey. Given the legal issues of trying to gather data from the registrar’s office or the parents themselves, this current method is understandable.

    Objective definitions for “upper-middle class” or “middle-class” don’t really matter here because it’s all about the subjective perceptions of the students anyway. Their intent was to see how students felt they matched up with their own conceptions of privilege. Assuming that most people don’t have distorted subjective perceptions – viewing “upper-middle class” as a squalid existence or “working class” as luxurious, their concept is valid.

    Though I’m with you on the 180k not falling into the bracket surrounding the 50% point for responses…I’m curious how that worked out.

  • To promote socio-economic diversity, why not extend University College tuition benefits to our service workers, a proposal originally floated (by Mike Morgan, I believe), a couple years ago. Day school students, why not take a night school course or two, and get to know WashU students who have never lived in the WashU Bubble?

    It works both ways. One of my University College students told me she avoided the day school courses because of frustration dealing with “naive privileged rich kids.” They may have something to teach us too. Why not have more cross-listing of day school courses with University College, for a more diverse classroom experience?

  • Q

    More fun with shoddy comparisons… your pie graphs compare the perception of the AVERAGE Wash U student to each participant’s self-identified status. How many students would identify themselves as the Wash U average?

    Keep up the good work!

  • alum

    Yah, what Bryan said. How about some numeracy, Stud Life? Sheesh!

  • Bryan

    To Chase:

    The next time you do a statistical survey and try to draw any conclusions from it, be much more careful with the survey design. You should not have different sized ranges unless you provide a very good reason for doing so. The fact that there are more people in the 100k-150k range is massively unhelpful considering all of the lower income brackets are at most 20k apart. In fact, if you add up the values in the equivalent 50k-100k range, you get a much greater value than any other bracket. Not to mention, you did not account for many significant sampling errors, including:
    -Failure to account for cost of living in different parts of the country. (If my parents make 100k in San Francisco, that isn’t worth as much as it is here.)
    -From the graph shown, the median could not possibly be outside of the 100k-150k range.
    -Your percentage values don’t even add up to 100%! If students respond that they don’t know, you shouldn’t consider them in that part of the sample. Try recalculating those percentages based on how many people actually responded.
    -There is no reason to assume that students provide an accurate response. I have no idea how much exactly my parents make every year, but I do know it fluctuates greatly.
    -What definitions did your group use for distinguishing the classes? If I self-identify as middle class and you say I’m upper class, what is the line of demarcation that you use to say I’m wrong? Is that line consistent with nation-wide economic definitions?

    I hope someone from StudLife can help put these objections out there. For a cover story based on statistics, there is a shocking and appalling lack of understanding of the accurate representation of statistical data.

  • Devil’s Advocate General

    Damn, there I go trusting Student Life reporting again. Thanks for clearing that up, Chase.

  • That $180,000 is actually the median income– it’s difficult to say an average due to the way the survey was done, since averaging ranges doesn’t work very well.

    Chase Sackett
    WU/FUSED Co-Chair

  • Devil’s Advocate General

    Subtract one point for shoddy statistics, WU/FUSED. What’s the median annual household income?

    The mean (average) is going to be skewed badly by the small handful of unrepentant zillionaires here.

  • 3pete

    How does WUSTL compare to other similar schools? I think it would be helpful if this study didn’t focus so much on comparing students here to the general population, but to other similar Universities as benchmarking.