Who Gets to Participate

In the words of Ellie Hisama’s recent article, Getting to Count: numbers matter.[1] According to a report from the New York Times, over half of Dartmouth’s student body comes from the top 10% of the United States’ income distribution.[2] Among the prestigious Ivy League universities, Dartmouth takes the cake for share of students coming from the top 1%, a threshold which requires $630,000 per year to qualify for.

It’s no well-kept secret that Dartmouth enjoys its position as the high-income haven. The school even publishes a list of its most prized donors, enshrining the wealthiest and most reliable ones with special titles and designations.[3] In many ways, Dartmouth is like a cyclical machine. Wealthy alumni send their kids to Dartmouth, many of these students work in corporate America, often earning six-figure salaries out of college, and once they have children of their own, these children likely have an advantage in terms of Dartmouth admissions. And why should Dartmouth be ashamed of its elitist status? The endowment has ballooned, and more students apply now than ever.[4] Something must be working.

The truth remains, however, that admission to Dartmouth is just the beginning. Social capital carries a lot of weight at Dartmouth, and money is intrinsically tied to that. Even after a student is at Dartmouth, various social groups dominate life on campus (Greek life, artistic performance groups, various sporting clubs, etc.). Want to participate in the rush trip to the Dartmouth Skiway? You’ll have to cough up $40 for rentals and $10 for a day-pass. How about joining a club sport? Good luck paying for the travel trips. A cappella groups? I hope your parents paid for voice lessons in high school.

In a capitalistic society where social power is built around the haves and have-nots, there is an innate human instinct to enforce exclusivity. Exclusivity solidifies to those in the participating group that they (ostensibly) deserve to be in their position. Perhaps more importantly, it reinforces social powers to outsiders who, whether pining to get in or not, do not get to participate.

Being an undergraduate at Dartmouth is like climbing a ladder, where every rung adds a new level of social capital. Freshmen year, students audition for various performance groups, try out for club sports, and apply for college-run positions (e.g., tour guide). Sophomore year, potential new members try to rush a Greek space, the dominant form of socialization on campus. Junior year, members might be invited to join a secret society. Notice the common thread: not everyone gets to join. A student can try out or apply or might be invited, but that is no certainty. And, surprise, the students who are most often left in the dust are those that were already struggling, either financially or socially, to begin with.

Some might argue that in certain situations, exclusivity is necessary to ensure the highest level of product. Think about the great orchestras. They make people audition for their position in the group, so what is so bad about, say, an undergraduate a cappella group going through an audition process? Inherently, exclusion of that sort may not be malicious, but when groups mock failed auditionees/potential new members, or perform derogatory songs about a certain ethnic group, or usually perform in settings that aid and abet in sexual assault, musical performance as an artform and musical performance as a social dynamic seem to separate. This leads to a critical question: who gets to participate?


[1] Hisama, Ellie M. 2021. “Getting to Count.” Music Theory Spectrum 43 (2): 349–63. https://doi.org/10.1093/mts/mtaa033.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/dartmouth-college

[3] https://www.dartmouth.edu/~alfund/thankyou/

[4] https://home.dartmouth.edu/news/2020/09/dartmouth-announces-endowment-returns

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