If we accept that a Yale education is primarily cultural rather than academic, then the kind of acculturation that should take place there depends on what habits we would like our ruling class to have...Yale emphasizes the ways that it broadens students’ horizons, but never the ways it narrows them. When Yale offers free fellowships to study in China or subsidizes a trip to New York to catch a Broadway show, it bills these luxuries as instruction in how to be open-minded and well-cultured. In fact, these trips are, more than anything, instruction in how to be wealthy.I think there is much to be said for this claim, though I suspect my fellow-cheapsters will disagree, and that it does relate in a narrow kind of way to the problem of thrift. I didn't attend a particularly exclusive or high-status school by East Coast terms (though it was certainly expensive), but I did attend a school that was, in terms of the students who populated it and what they aspired to, significantly higher class than my prior upbringing. I have no great claims to the standard pre-college deprivations--my family was neither poor nor uneducated, nor were most people I grew up with--but my parents did comment after my second or third year in college that my time there seemed to have influenced my tastes, and not towards greater thrift.
When Yale sells these tourist’s-eye-view glimpses as a genuine education in worldliness, it leaves students thinking of themselves as in the ruling class but not of it. Really, they're just as insular as any elite.
Before college, I had never bought a pair of jeans over $25 and I thought Starbuck's was where the rich drank their fancy, inscrutable cocktails. In college, I still liked that sentiment, but a real "deal" was a pair of $70 jeans marked down to $40, not the shapeless, stretchy $25 ones from Target. Clearly this attitude shift was not the result of a higher income--I was just as poor in college as before it, and more if I considered the cost of my education as personal debt, which I mostly did not. I'm pretty certain that some combination of my friends' spending habits and the sense of status-raising promise (probably entitlement) that everyone at Chicago imbibed dramatically changed my own expectations about money and how to spend it in a way very similar to the kind of class acculturation Helen describes. I still wanted to be thrifty, but I desperately did not want to be trashy, which I took to be anything lower class than the class our graduation from Chicago implied we would join. (Do you see how ambiguous this status game is? Status acculturation seems to go hand-in-hand with status anxiety. Endlessly elusive and self-absorbing.) I wanted to live in a way that anticipated how I expected to live once all the promises of my expensive education were borne out and I was 45 and paid private school tuition for my children and owned a row-house in Lincoln Park, where I walked my labradoodle.
Of course there were obvious limitations to what could be done, and everyone at the same time relished the image of their faux-poverty by eating at places like Depot and decorating their apartments with curbside furniture finds (this was before the Great American Bedbug Infestation). But that was all for ironic show. The real thrift, such as there was in college, was channeled into finding a good price on a nice interview suit that would last a few years. (Miss Self-Important hadn't gotten that far in the acculturation process yet though, and decided that buying the pieces separately at two different sales would be wiser. This proved false. Now her suit does not match.)
This status acculturation process continues apace after college, where I live in comfortable entry-level with no dependents affluence. Recently, a friend sent me an invitation to Gilt, which sends me daily sales on designer clothes I would never buy. They are substantially discounted, but only in the sense in which a previously $800 dress on sale for $250 dollars can be considered to be discounted. Nonetheless, I look at the sales each day, and I am starting to believe that maybe a $160 dress, marked down from $425, is not such a bad deal. After all, I have seen them every day for weeks already and these are the cheapest of the cheap. To which my friend Alex replies, "I think it's a reasonable amount for a nice dress, but more than you would have spent a few months ago. This is how people get acclimated to spending money such that the NYTimes articles about discount designer shopping become relevant to you." That's terrible, I reply. "Yeah, I stopped looking."