Spring 2019 Bulletin

The Privileged Poor

On February 13, 2019, Anthony Abraham Jack (Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Shutzer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study) spoke at a gathering of Academy Members and guests about his new book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. The program, which served as the 2078th Stated Meeting of the Academy, included a welcome from David W. Oxtoby (President of the Academy) and an introduction from Bridget Terry Long (Dean of the Faculty of Education and Saris Professor of Education and Economics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education). Danielle Allen (James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics) participated in a conversation with Anthony Jack following his opening remarks. An edited version of his remarks and of his conversation with Danielle Allen appears below.

Anthony Abraham Jack
Anthony Abraham Jack
Anthony Abraham Jack is Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the Shutzer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Thank you for this amazing opportunity. It is truly an honor to be here today. Growing up, I never thought about writing a book and so to celebrate its launch in this space with all of you is beyond words. Thank you to Francesca Purcell and Judith Polgar for all your help in making this event happen. Thank you also to the janitors, cooks, and those who do the unseen work that is no less important.

Let us begin with some humbling and basic facts: Higher education is highly unequal and depressingly stratified.

Although first-generation college students make up roughly 50 percent of the students at four-year schools, they constitute only 14 percent of the undergraduates at the most competitive colleges who come from the bottom half of the income distribution. Most students from lower-income families are disproportionately relegated to community, for-profit, and less selective colleges, where resources are fewer and graduation rates are lower. This contrast is even more striking when you consider that children from families in the top 25 percent of the income distribution take up almost 75 percent of the seats. Economist Raj Chetty and colleagues found that thirty-eight colleges have more students from families in the top 1 percent of the income distribution than students from families in the bottom 60 percent. At Washington University in St. Louis, for example, the ratio is almost four to one. This disparity is especially troubling given that selective colleges like Amherst, Harvard, Michigan, and Virginia serve as mobility springboards for those from disadvantaged families compared to lower-tier colleges.

Students from poor families were once kept out of these bastions of privilege by a devilish duo. We–and include myself in this group–were excluded by lack of information, on one hand, and tuition costs that rivaled or even eclipsed our family’s annual incomes, on the other. Some colleges took action. Beginning with Princeton in 1998, several colleges began enacting initiatives like no-loan financial aid policies to combat class inequalities that have a stranglehold on our delicate democracy and even more fragile system of higher education. With an unprecedented gift from Michael Bloomberg this past November, Johns Hopkins University will join the list of no-loan colleges in this country. Through these initiatives, colleges declared that money will no longer be a barrier to entry. It will no longer curtail your success.

But uncritically praising universities as democratic institutions for increasing access reflects a limited civic imagination. An admissions letter and generous financial aid do not a diverse college make. Access ain’t inclusion.

I worry that colleges have extended coveted invitations to excited, eager, able youth before adequately preparing for their arrival. We seem to have forgotten an old truth: Citizenship is so much more than just being in a place. It is accessing all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

This is what I study. It is also what I lived and live.

“Where are the other poor, black people?” This is the first question that I can remember asking myself in 2003 after I arrived at Amherst College and took part in what I call “convocation conversations.” You know what I’m talking about–those chats in which people conveniently work in verbal versions of their resumes and narrate their summer schedules for any and all to hear. My new peers swapped stories of multiweek trips abroad and fancy parties hosted at second homes. They regaled us with personal accounts of courtside seats to professional basketball games and invitations to private premiers of movies that had not yet hit theaters. They knew about Canada Goose before it was cool. These were class markers I associated with rich people. My first time on a plane was traveling from Miami to Amherst for my recruiting trip. Back home, summer was just a season. At Amherst, summer was also a verb.

What I thought I found on my first days at Amherst was the legacy of William Bowen and Derek Bok’s groundbreaking study, The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences Considering Race in College and University Admissions. In this work, they showed that an overwhelming majority of the black students at elite colleges come from privileged backgrounds: the sons of lawyers, or daughters of doctors, or children of commerce. I resigned myself to be, yet again, the only poor black person in a rich, white place.

Imagine my surprise, however, when one of my classmates who studied abroad in Spain during her junior year of high school turned out also to come from a family that struggled to make ends meet. Feeling comfortable with each other, we shared stories of doing homework by candlelight. We did this not to be romantic but rather because the power was out. We knew a common struggle all too well: that sometimes there was more month at the end of the money. The vacation homes my new classmates ventured to, it turned out, were not their own, but rather those of their wealthy high school peers. Alas, I was not the only one granted access to privileged experiences and places beyond what my family could afford or even knew about.

Like my freshman imagination, social science research did not make space for these experiences as part of the larger first-gen story. When social scientists wrote about lower-income students, they wrote of a single experience chronicling culture shock and social isolation.

Yet all the while, as my research uncovered, colleges and universities were hedging their bets: they were getting their new diversity from old sources: the Andovers and Exeters of the world. So, I set out to trouble the waters.

The Privileged Poor focuses on undergraduate life at pseudonymous Renowned University, an elite, wealthy, white university in the Northeast that adopted no-loan financial aid policies. I sat down with 103 black, white, and Latino undergraduates and conducted ethnographic observations of campus life for two years to investigate what it is like to be a student at Renowned. In this research, I highlight how lower-income undergraduates at Renowned have shared beginnings but lived evermore divergent lives before coming to college. I explore the experiences of those who live in poor, often segregated communities but enter college from elite boarding, day, and preparatory schools like Exeter, Choate, or Dalton–those whom I call the Privileged Poor. I compare their experiences to equally economically distressed peers who enter from local, typically distressed public schools–those whom I call the Doubly Disadvantaged.

Admittedly, these terms are loaded. To be honest, this choice is purposeful. In addition to the oxymoronic quality of “Privileged Poor” that sticks with you, like jumbo shrimp, to engage with or even find fault in the terms still forces one to interrogate what they intend to capture. How can one be privileged and poor? Even using the qualifier “doubly” inspires an intersectional way of thinking when there previously wasn’t one.

Personally, I wanted to move the conversation away from individual differences to focus on how structural inequalities like segregation, joblessness, poverty, disinvestment in public K-12 education, and the hollowing out of both center cities and the nation’s bread basket manifest themselves on our campuses. My investigation into this overlooked diversity among lower-income youth pushes back against the dangerous downplaying of how prolonged exposure to savage inequities in our neighborhoods and schools affect how students navigate college, if they make it there at all.

We cannot escape the fact that while some neighborhoods and secondary schools keep us from hurt, harm, and danger, others place us in the thick of it.

Conventional wisdom dictates that you need to know where you’ve been to know where you’re going. When it comes to understanding the undergraduate experience, the same sentiment is true. We must examine where students come from–and what they have been through–to understand why they chart the paths they do once they reach our gates. Doing so forces us to think about how school policies and practices facilitate or hinder that process.

Which students immerse themselves in the college community? Who wants to leave after the first week? Who gets the strongest letters of recommendation and life-changing internships? Who says of their experience, “I couldn’t breathe here?” Who calls their college “a toxic environment”? Or what about those who call college “unsurprising,” label it “the next step,” or liken college to “déjà vu”? To overlook the rich diversity of experiences within first-generation college students is to base policy on only a partial picture. As it stands, our understanding of how poverty and inequality, and class and culture shape college life remains incomplete and the policies we implement to help students miss the mark.

For example, colleges expect students to be comfortable and proactive in forging relationships with faculty. This is the road to extensions, extra help, recommendation letters, internships, and invitations to special dinners. This is the road to emotional support when times get rough. Yet this expectation remains unsaid; there is no manual of dos and don’ts, whens and hows. An unspoken, “If undergraduates want something, they will come,” operates as the gold standard, the college corollary to the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Imagine the culture shock, then, that some first-gens experience navigating what sociologist Jean Anyon calls the “hidden curriculum.”

Let me offer a few examples. Alice, a quick-witted Latina with a penchant for short answers, attended a segregated, public high school. She revealed to me that her four years before Renowned were filled with classmates fighting, setting trash cans on fire, and skipping school. For her teachers, maintaining order took precedence to teaching. Her transition to college was rough. She doesn’t feel at home at Renowned; she says being here contradicts everything about her life back home: the people, the culture, the very buildings she passes on the way to class. Professors informally say, “My door is open.” She doesn’t believe them. She feels “too intimidated, too afraid to talk to people” and consequently she “rarely [goes] to school-sponsored people for things.”

In contrast, Ogun, a reflective and discerning Latina, hails from a troubled neighborhood but attended an affluent boarding school with a multi-million-dollar endowment. Her largest class had twelve students and contact with teachers inside and outside the classroom was an everyday occurrence. Studying abroad was not only an option, but also encouraged. Office hours were built into the culture of the school. She reports feeling “empowered to go talk to a professor and say, ‘I want to meet with you.’” She even goes on to say, “My school instilled in me that I’m allowed to do that; it’s actually my right.” When her instructor was away from campus, Ogun had no qualms calling his cell phone for virtual office hours despite friends’ surprised looks and admonitions.

What was new for Alice was old for Ogun. What was a mismatch for Alice was a match for Ogun. These differences result not from individual deficiencies, but rather from societal defects. Colleges mistakenly and erroneously see Ogun as engaged and Alice as disinterested.

Moreover, colleges reward students accordingly. One residential advisor shared that when it comes to nominating students for awards and different honors, “The process is relationship-dependent, unfortunately. . . . Oftentimes the best candidates are not put forward. It’s hard to tease out what is meritocracy and what is nepotism, favoritism, cronyism or whatever you want to call it.”

Undergraduates from America’s forgotten neighborhoods and ignored schools are truly at a disadvantage as colleges continue to privilege the privileged.

But I am not so naive.

Knowing how to navigate social relationships with faculty and deans is not the only hurdle that lower-income students face. There are things that no amount of cultural capital can combat. Where Alice and Ogun’s experiences align, their shared economic disadvantage is more salient in shaping their sense of belonging, overall well-being, and ability to perform academically.

Walking around campus in March, I hear stories of trips home to rest, to Europe for backpacking, and to Mexico for partying. I even joked with one student fresh off the plane from the Caribbean, still wearing his straw hat, that he looked more like one of my cousins than his white, New England kin. Six days in the sun had given him a golden glow. Spring Break, however, means something different for lower-income students. As Valeria, a lower-income Latina from California, laments, “There’s always famine during Spring Break.”

Alice and Ogun know hunger’s sting all too well, and not just from when food stamps ran out at home. You see many colleges assume that all students depart campus during Spring Break. At Renowned, which closes all of its dining halls during the break, these closures result in one out of every seven students having to fend for themselves for meals. Let’s think about that for a moment. At one of the world’s wealthiest universities, one out of every seven students face food insecurity.

Closures, sadly, are a common college practice: Of the nearly eighty colleges that have adopted no-loan financial aid policies – the institutions that are most progressive when it comes to aid – as of 2014 only one in five kept their dining halls open during Spring Break. Johns Hopkins, even with its $1.8 billion gift, closes its dining halls during the break.

To make matters worse, some colleges charge students upwards of $35 a day to stay in their own rooms in the residential halls during Spring Break or in someone else’s room who has left on vacation. One college goes so far as to change the locks on students’ rooms to prevent entry.

When your pocket is as empty as your stomach, you are more worried about your next meal than recounting trips to the West Tisbury Market. Nicole, a lower-income black student who went to a private high school on scholarship, notes, “Spring Break is the most blatant break where privilege and wealth play a part in whether or not you leave.” And as Maria, a lower-income Latina, asks, “How can you support yourself when you can’t feed yourself?”

Capturing this harsh reality with comedic seriousness, Arianna says that “Spring Break is the real Hunger Games” and the odds are never in poor students’ favor. Just how close this reality comes to living in the districts is downright depressing.

At the most recent 1vyG conference, where students from all over the country discussed what it meant to be a first-generation college student, one young white woman, with a pixie haircut and wearing a Columbia University sweatshirt, stood in a room full of people to discuss Spring Break. Looking at me as if for courage, she revealed how she spent her last Spring Break at one of the most elite, wealthiest universities in the country: she increased her online dating activity in the lead up to Spring Break to secure dates for the following week. You see, banking on gender norms of older men paying for the first date, she felt that her only option was to use OKCupid as if it were DoorDash. She treated Tinder as if it were GrubHub. In order to eat, she offered her time. In order to eat, she offered herself.

This makes no sense. Yet this is life for far too many undergraduates. Furthermore, this reality goes beyond just what poor students face. What about the students who do not have a home to go back to? The disowned. Those who defied both the odds and their parents by choosing a college away from home instead of working or going to school nearby. The unwanted. Those students who know that harm and home are sometimes synonymous.

New students require taking on new responsibilities. We must move from access to inclusion. We must ensure that social class – symbolically and materially – does not keep lower-income students in secondary positions.

To embark upon the crucial task of making colleges look more like the world, we must question what we take for granted. We must examine how both the symbolic and material dimensions of class affect campus life. We must work to ensure that students do not just graduate, but that they do so whole and healthy.

As each class becomes ever more diverse, so do colleges’ connections to once overlooked communities, for these new ties bring various inequalities into sharper and sharper relief. I hope that The Privileged Poor not only sheds light on the problems at hand, but also provides a framework for addressing them.

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Danielle Allen
Danielle Allen
Danielle Allen is the James Bryant Conant University Professor at Harvard University and the Director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics. She was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2009 and serves as a Cochair of the Academy’s Commission on the Practice of Democratic Citizenship.

Before we begin our conversation, I would like to name a few of the ways in which The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students is really an impor­tant book. First, it has made something visible that went unseen for too long. At the most basic human level of sharing stories that needed to be heard and that were not being heard, the book is profoundly impor­tant. But that work of sharing stories also changes the research agenda. It makes the point that though we had studies of higher education that touched on inclusion and access, an important piece of the necessary research agenda was missing. And why was it missing? Because people with the relevant experience were not at the table of research and able to put the relevant questions on that table. This book brings a new voice to the table and broadens the research agenda. There is also the conceptual work that the book does: the careful distinction between what social capital and what material capital provide for people and the fact that one can’t think of disadvantaged or low-income students in broad strokes. To understand their experience, you need to parse the different effects that access to cultural, social, and material capital have. Now the human point and the conceptual point come together. Tony Jack has combined a fundamentally humane instinct for seeing the fine-grained nature of individual students’ experiences with a wonderful conceptual lucidity that gives people tools for scaling his human insights in support of broader social analyses. That is an incredible achievement. The list of impor­tant things that this book does is long, and I won’t go through all of its virtues, but I do want to say one last thing about the book. It is beautiful and moving as just a piece of writing. The book recounts unforgettable stories. Tony tells the story of students at Renowned who serve on the custodial service team, an activity that is presented as a pre-orientation program on par with camping trips and arts and service programs. How can cleaning up after one’s fellow students who are on a proper pre-orientation program be a preparation for anything other than on-campus hierarchy? Students’ experiences of this pre-orientation program are stories that need to be told out loud, and Tony does this. He tells these stories in the most generous and humane way, but without sparing any of the kind of steely evaluation that is necessary for stories of that kind.

It is such a pleasure to be able to sit and talk with you, Tony, about this work. I would like to start by asking a little bit more about you and your own journey because an important part of this story is the fact that you decided to turn your experience into scholarship. How did you make that decision?

Anthony Jack

I studied religion and women’s and gender studies at Amherst; I was also pre-med. Being at a liberal arts college, with someone else paying the bill, inspired me to take advantage of as much as I could. At graduate school, I started reading cultural sociology with Michèle Lamont. We were focused on the sociology of education, but the story always felt half-right to me. I didn’t see myself and my classmates at Amherst in the narrative. And that made me want to try to figure out how I fit in. I reflected on when I was a diversity intern in the admissions office and worked to recruit students–very similar to the Oliver Scholars and the Wight Foundation programs that place students in private schools and then those private schools funnel the students into elite schools. I am reading this literature on the sociology of education, on cultural sociology, and no one is talking about the group of students that I identified with and that I literally helped to recruit. I decided to do my qualifying paper – GPS can change your life, for those graduate students in the room – on the experiences of lower-income students. And that is when I started looking at the differences between those who went to prep schools and those who went to public schools. I didn’t go in looking for that. I let it emerge organically because I asked students about their families, their neighborhoods, and their high schools before moving on to their college experiences. They described similar families and very similar neighborhoods, but as soon as they got to high school, their paths diverged tremendously.

Danielle Allen

But you have escaped my question. What I really want to know is why did you go to graduate school? Why did you make that choice?

Anthony Jack

I am a first-generation college student. When I went to my commencement at Amherst and I saw the robes, I absolutely fell in love with the robes.

Danielle Allen

You know what? That is my answer too.

Anthony Jack

Are you serious? Then I’m in good company. The pomp and circumstance and the pageantry are beautiful. “The privileges pertaining thereto” is what Amherst says when they give someone a degree. I fell in love with that. I wanted to be a scholar and I never thought it would be my life, but then I looked at the life of a professor: setting your own research agenda, asking questions that are important to you, and pursuing this work with as much energy and passion as you want. So in thinking about graduate school, I made the decision that I wanted to continue to learn, I wanted to continue to explore.

Danielle Allen

In your opening remarks you referred to belonging as consisting of full membership on campus and “the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.” In fact, when we were talking before the program, I had asked you about the concept of belonging. I remarked that after reading your book, I wasn’t sure you were using “belonging” in the conventional way that it has come to be used, as a reference to a psychological state. You concurred and said that you think a sense of belonging matters, a psychological feeling of ownership matters, but actually that isn’t enough. You put the emphasis on the concept of inclusion. And the way you defined it when we were talking was that inclusion is about having access to the “rights and privileges pertaining thereto”: that is, pertaining to being a member of an academic community. That’s a powerful definition. As you worked with these students you saw all kinds of ways they were blocked from having the rights and privileges pertaining to the community of educated people, of scholars, and so forth. Let’s talk a little bit more about that conception of academic citizenship and your picture of access in its full description.

Anthony Jack

You have put your finger on it. To me, belonging is a first step toward inclusion because belonging, feeling like you are in a place, is where it starts. I wanted to explore feeling included as an equal member of that community: that you can go to the career service office, you feel perfectly fine going to mental health services, you feel okay going to office hours–making those connections and building that developmental network. I wanted to push the conversation beyond simply feeling like you wanted to belong in a community. Are you making that community work for you? College is about exploration and learning, but it’s also about getting what you need. I always tell my students who are first-gen, “Get what you need out of this place.” But some people really don’t feel comfortable doing that. Office hours and open-door policies scare them as much as sitting in the front row of a class. They feel it should be about the work, not how you network. They feel that their A or B in class should be enough. But how do you make them feel included in the life of the school that goes beyond statements such as “Yes, I live in this dorm” or “Yes, I belong to this club.” How do you make yourself feel fully included? How do you promote that? And that is something that I really wanted to include. It is about citizenship but I chose inclusion to speak more to the data as well. At the Ed School we have this phrase “usable knowledge.” How can our research lead to direct policy changes that promote positive outcomes for children and youth?

Danielle Allen

Your book contains policy suggestions. Some are about things that colleges and universities can do, and we’ll talk more about that in a moment, but you said earlier this evening that the experience of inclusion was partly about information and partly about tuition. What if there were a students’ bill of rights as a starting point? Would something as basic as that make any difference or is that a wrongheaded way of thinking about how people come to claim these rights and privileges?

Anthony Jack

I think we need to question what we take for granted on a college campus. We need to make some things very explicit. For example, we reach out to families when we want money or when we want them to send care packages, but what happens if we reach out to them and say, “This is what it means to be a student here.” Office hours are impor­tant because they are how we get to know your student, to learn their interests and likes. This is what the career service office is for. We need to define what fellowships and internships and winternships are and the plethora of new terms that they will encounter. How do we lower the barrier to entry? Information is important, but we need to be intentional in the way in which we engage students–meeting them and understanding that there’s a true diversity of experiences in our classrooms and in our dorms. This isn’t a one-size-fits-all model.

Danielle Allen

Let’s talk about your experience as a researcher because another thing that was very moving in the book was that as you were conducting these iterated interviews with students over time, it was hard for me as a reader not to get the impression that you were simultaneously doing incredible work as a mentor in helping these students. At a very basic level, in some way that I have trouble articulating, you as a researcher were part of the solution to their experience. You were researcher and mentor simultaneously.

Anthony Jack

To be honest with you, that line was blurred from day one. Not in the analysis but in the carrying out of data, both micro and macro, in the sense that I was part of the solution. Let me explain how. I invited any student who was on campus during Spring Break to a meal and a movie. I used those moments to reconnect with students outside of an interview and we broadened the conversation to bigger things. I also opened myself up to help the university become better. I took a gamble as a graduate student to share findings and give presentations to senior leadership, which is risky. Somebody might say, “Well, now you can’t do the rest of your research” or they can put up road blocks or scoop your research. So I took a gamble because I had the data and wanted to deepen my own understanding of what universities can do in response to this information. But I also wanted to know what I was up against to try to get universities to change. I was fortunate enough to open the dining halls during Spring Break. That is how we were able to confirm that one out of seven students stayed on campus. There is also a program called Scholarship Plus in which students get free tickets to events. Those tickets used to be given out at a separate table at the back entrance of buildings. You can imagine the lower-income students, predominantly black and Latino with a few white and Asian students sprinkled in, entering through the back door and the students who can afford to pay entering through the main entrance. We changed that process. There were moments of back and forth between myself and the university as I was constructing my dissertation, which is now this book. I took a gamble, but I was a support network for students to the point that they saw me more as a therapist than peer researcher. But they touched me too. I FaceTime with parents and sometimes get birthday gifts. I became very close with the students I met. 

© 2019 by Anthony Abraham Jack and Danielle Allen, respectively