In 1987, American author Bret Easton Ellis published his second novel The Rules of Attraction. The novel recounts the debauchery of bratty, sophomoric and elite students at a small liberal arts college on the east coast. The backdrop of the novel, showing the fictional Camden College, bears a striking aesthetic resemblance to University of Puget Sound in size and general disposition of the students.
The connection between Ellis’s second novel and the debate on whether or not Puget Sound should continue to issue merit aid may seem nebulous at first; yet, an analysis of the culture of small liberal arts colleges may shed some light on the issue. Puget Sound is well known for offering prospective students large sums of merit-based aid in the five-figure territory. These discounts off the actual sticker price of the University—$44,740 for the 2015-2016 year—make Puget Sound affordable for students who occupy the awkward space between not qualifying for Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and coming from a place of extreme privilege. Thus, it would seem based on this fact that Puget Sound caters distinctly to an upper-middle class demographic. Somewhere between the grit and hustle of “Shameless” and the irreverent privilege of “Gossip Girl.”
We all know that socioeconomic diversity is good for classroom conversation. A variety of student backgrounds and perspectives has been noted to be beneficial in educational discourse among students. But, if we momentarily suspend this notion and think of Puget Sound as an experience both socially and educationally, the results of the discontinuing merit-based aid become much more interesting.
Charging full tuition for the vast majority of students would no doubt result in a more exclusive demographic. While this shift would alienate certain members of the current campus community, it would no doubt cast Puget Sound in a more posh light. More children of the 1% would bring generous trust funds and an air of elitism to campus. Being associated with perhaps the most lamented social class, the American aristocracy would result in a more outwardly infamous perception of the Puget Sound student body. A more infamous reputation could put Puget Sound in the same league with comparably sized east coast schools like Bennington, Middlebury and Vassar. Visually speaking, the campus could also benefit. More BMWs in the parking lots, off campus residences furnished by Design Within Reach and students sporting the latest threads from the Topshop catalog would all be fringe benefits to such a shift.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am personally very thankful for the merit-based aid I receive from this University. However, I do feel that there is a notion of youthful jet-setting being lost on Puget Sound. After all, isn’t rubbing arms with the children of the nation’s elite not a quintessential reason why people attend small, private colleges? I was certainly seduced by the casual decadence of stories like The Rules of Attraction or the films like Damsels in Distress. I always viewed college as a widow for regular middle class kids into the lives of the haute bourgeoisie. With nearly omnipotent merit-based aid, this exclusivity is seemly lost on many students of Puget Sound.
However and how much money the administration chooses to dedicate to students is surely outside of my control. I find it important, though, to view this debate through varied perspectives. Personally, I have always been fascinated with the families at the top that Bernie Sanders laments in so many campaign speeches. Who are they? Where do their children go to college? While I realize that merit-based aid makes this school more accessible to myself and so many of my classmates, I can’t help but wonder what Puget Sound would look like if it went full
1% on everybody. Moreover, a part of me believes that while alienating future perspective students, the notoriety of the school would surely increase. At any rate, the stereotype so poignantly summed up by Frank Ocean in “Super Rich Kids” as “good times babe, It’s good times” will live on in America, whatever Puget Sound decides to do.