THE SPINE JANUARY 17, 2008
I am not the first person to make the point. But the decisions of Harvard College and Yale College to give financial aid to undergraduates who come from families earning up to $180,000 per year (for the former) and up to $200,000 per year (for the latter) recognizes the bitter truth that these sums do not allow you to live in the lap of luxury. Given the fact that, if these sums are actually earned by work rather than gotten from investment profits, taxes take roughly a third of the income off the top, and state taxes some, what we used to think of comfortably middle class is not comfortable at all. There are other institutions of higher learning that have made comparable accommodations to economic realities, and presumably those others which have big endowments are considering similar accommodations.
It is clear that the dividing line between what we used to think of as the upper middle class and the middle middle class is quite muddled. Upper, middle, they both face financial strain -- not quite like the l.m.c. But still. And upper middle class used to be something akin to the "comfortable" or even the rich, or to live like them. The strata are by now very vague in definition and experience.
Many of the rich are no longer quite as rich as they once thought they were...or as rich as they actually were. The super-rich are much larger in number and the extent of their incomes and wealth is greater than it ever has been. One begins to feel a bit of class conflict between the sort-of rich and the real rich. But that doesn't affect their kids in college.
On the one hand, families who are pinched even with incomes of close to $200,000 will increasingly be helped with their children's tuition and fees. But, if the Democratic congress has its way, or the next Democratic administration, these same people will be paying higher taxes because the party of the middle class and the poor thinks they are rich, which they are not.
Whether this new source of aid to what are really middle class students will mean that the elite colleges and universities will no longer look for poor applicants is yet to be seen. But my guess is that is what has been happening already.