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Harvard EdCast: How Colleges Fail Disadvantaged Students

Assistant Professor Tony Jack on the consequences of conflating access and inclusion — and the barriers that low-income students face when they get to college
Anthony Jack

Harvard sociologist Tony Jack knows what it's like to be a poor student at an elite college in America — and getting in is only the beginning of the battle.

When he began studying first-generation college-goers many years ago, Jack realized that all low-income students are not created equal. In fact, he noticed two groups — what he calls the "doubly disadvantaged" (low-income undergraduates coming from distressed public schools) and the "privileged poor" (low-income undergrads who had gone to private high schools). The experiences of these students arriving at the so-called "golden gates" of renowned colleges and universities is the subject of his first book, The Privileged Poor: How Colleges Fail Disadvantaged Students, which explores how higher education institutions overlook their unique trajectory.

“What does it mean to be poor student on rich campus? My mind goes to, how does it feel to integrate socially but [also] what are the material questions that hinder that process,” Jack says. From making friends to gathering letters of recommendation to how money plays a role in the college experience — all of these things greatly impact low-income students, who often are also first-generation college-goers.

And, Jack points out, universities often exacerbate the challenges by forgetting to ask the questions we all take for granted. As a culture, he says, we are often so fascinated with telling the “impoverished” story that we forget to really examine who these students are and notice that they are not all the same.

“We’re always going to set ourselves with stereotypical policies that are going to miss the mark. We have to be really intentional about interrogating the diversity that is our student body,” Jack says. 

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, Jack discusses the ways we conflate access and inclusion, and how colleges, in particular, have failed disadvantaged students, as well as his ongoing efforts to change that.


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. 

Harvard sociologist Tony Jack knows what it's like to be a poor student at an elite college in America. He knows not only firsthand, but also because he's spoken to hundreds of students about their experiences too. When he began studying first-generation college goers many years ago, he realized that all low-income students are not the same. In fact, Tony noticed two groups, one he calls the doubly disadvantaged and the other the privileged poor. 

As much as colleges stress the importance of diversity on campus, a look at policies reveal how higher education fails its low-income students. We talked about those failures and all the ways we continue to conflate access and inclusion on college campuses. When I sat down with Tony, I was struck by how his own personal experience is never far from his work. 

Tony Jack: I have a rule, if my mama can't read it, I don't want to write it. It's been always important to me to be able to communicate and communicate clearly, and it's always something I'm trying to improve on. And I came from a place where books were rare, newspapers were rare. And so you had to be able to communicate with who the person was sitting next to you. 

So I got access to a pen, to a paper, to a keyboard. I wanted to make sure I didn't lose that. I didn't want to feel that my family couldn't talk to me anymore or people who I grew up with would see me as a different person because when I put my fingers to a keyboard they lost sight of who I was. 

They were like, is that the same Tony that I knew growing up? And I am, and I'm not, in that respect, but to be able to communicate across different groups, knowing that I was born in a group that a lot of people didn't care if the research got to. We were the research subjects, not the people who you wanted to share your findings with. And so I wanted to incorporate that into how I view things. 

Jill Anderson: Well, I felt like that when I was reading the book. It just feels like you're pulling a curtain back on the reality of college for so many students, and so many students we don't ever hear from. And you're one of those former students. 

Tony Jack: I am. 

Jill Anderson: What has this experience been like for you? 

Tony Jack: The first thing that comes to mind is that I get angry a bit, because how is it that the same problems that I faced when I entered Amherst College in 2003 are still around and, in some ways, getting worse for students a decade and a half later, despite all of the attention, and words, and speeches, and programming saying, we want more diversity, we want more low-income students, we're going to put our money where our mouth is and go need-blind with financial aid and a host of other initiatives and still have not paid attention to what sociologists call they experience the core of college life, those moments between convocation and commencement, those everyday moments as students walk around our campus, enter our classrooms, eat in our cafeterias, and chill in our common rooms. 

We don't pay attention to those moments and how those moments and what happens in them make some students, especially first-gen and lower-income students feel like, in some respects, second-class citizens in a first-class world. But I'm also inspired by two things. One, the students who I did interview, the amount of stuff they had to go through and how much they persevered and overcame to get to an elite university is inspiring. And the support and the work that their families did to get them there is inspiring in that sense, though I hope that future generations don't have to overcome as much to get into these institutions, then we can hopefully invest in our country in a different sort of way. 

And I was inspired by the fact that I got some universities to listen. And this is a gamble. I was a graduate student. I hadn't secured a job yet. I was going to the job market six months after, and I took a gamble and began to share research findings with administrators, [INAUDIBLE] deans, provosts, and presidents, and say, look what's happening on campus. What can we do to fix it? 

And they started to listen. And whether it was because I had the op-ed come out in The New York Times, or I was able to finally publish the research in an academic journal, or the combination of both of those that people started to say, wait, what can we do? What is the research telling us? And what is the best way forward? 

And so we started talking about these issues, and to put something specific on the table, food insecurity on college campuses. Food insecurity right now is a huge issue. The government just issued a first proposal to actually think about food insecurity as [INAUDIBLE] at the college level. We know about being too hungry to learn in K3 through 12, but we stopped and didn't think about it in higher education. 

I showed how not knowing where your next meal is coming from is happening at schools like Harvard, and Yale, and Princeton, and Penn, Amherst, and Williams, and I put the research together to show how it's not chronic like it is at community colleges, it is episodic. It is literally built into the very structure of the school around recesses like spring break, Thanksgiving break, mid-semester break, all these moments that schools assume that all of their students escape campus for fun in the sun or family fights over the dinner table of the turkey. And that's just not the case, and especially if you are admitting more and more lower-income students. 

Jill Anderson: So you mentioned food insecurity. And you mentioned a lot of assumptions out there. But what does it mean to be a poor student today on a rich campus? 

Tony Jack: So usually we have an image of poor students at rich schools as experiencing culture shock, feeling isolation, and not knowing what to do, who to turn to, or really feel like a fish out of water. That is both built upon this fascination with telling the impoverished story that we didn't really take a critical look at who our students were and where they were coming from. Because if we had, we actually would have paid attention that we have a bimodal distribution of students. 

And so my research is the first to document the existence of the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantaged, two groups of lower-income students that have shared social origins, family, neighborhood, and the like, but who lived ever more divergent lives in route to college. Poor has such negative connotations, and what do you mean by doubly disadvantaged? What I'm trying to do on the terms is to bring attention to an overlooked diversity of experiences and trajectories that we previously have downplayed way too much. 

The fact of the matter is, elite colleges hedge their bets by going to elite boarding, day, and preparatory high schools to get their lower-income students. Andover, Exeter, St. Paul, Choate, Hockaday, all of these schools also have diversity initiatives to recruit lower-income Black, white, Latino, and Asian students. And schools like Yale and Princeton go to St. Paul to get not just their alumni kids, not just the legacy students, but also their lower-income schools, as well, because prep for prep, a better chance, the Wight Foundation-- W-I-G-H-T-- all have these on ramps into private schools. 

And so a student who went to Andover for four years and then comes to Harvard, for example, has a very different experience transition to college, acclimation to the culture, getting used to being around wealthy white people than somebody who went to an inner city high school, even if they grew up in the same neighborhood. And so the privileged poor, it has that oxymoronic quality to it, like jumbo shrimp, and that is purposeful, because I want people to actually question wait, how can someone be both privileged and poor? 

It is the privileged poor by virtue of their time in these high schools have access to what sociologists call dominant cultural capital. And for all intents and purposes, cultural capital is nothing more than taking for granted ways of being that are valued in a particular context. You don't act the same way you do at church the way you do at work, the way you do at the gym, all of these context-specific ways of being. 

In college, that means being proactive and reaching out to faculty members. It means going to office hours. It means going to the career service office early and often. These schools teach that because they have the resources, the time, and, quite frankly, the alignment between what colleges want and what the high schools can provide that other schools can't. 

The doubly disadvantaged don't have access to those experiences in high school. So when they come yes, they are like a fish out of water. But the question is, when we think about a lower-income Black student at an elite school, why is it that we only think about the former when it can be 50-50? On average, 50% of the lower-income Black students and one third, on average, of the lower-income Latino students actually graduate from boarding, day, and preparatory high schools. 

Now, I'm not so naive to believe that knowing how to go to office hours and build a network in college is all students need. There are some problems that poor students face that no matter how much cultural capital you hit, and you get hit hard, if you don't have money, knowing the difference, or knowing the distance between Chilmark and West Tisbury and on the vineyard or where people vacation on these breaks, like going to Tulum and going skiing in this place, all that kind of stuff, it doesn't matter when you can't feed yourself. 

So when you asked me the question what does it means to be a poor student on a rich college campus, my mind automatically goes to how does it feel to integrate yourself socially, but then what are the material conditions that also hinder that process? Do you feel like you can integrate into the school? Can you make friends? 

Can you interact with faculty members? Can you get a letter of recommendation by the time you are a junior to apply for that internship? But the other part is the economic part, the structural part. How does money, cash money, play a role in the lives of students on a college campus? And how do university policies exacerbate that process? 

Jill Anderson: As you've pointed out, when students get on campus, many issues pop up. Why do you think colleges and universities, particularly elite ones, tend to downplay the importance of a student's sense of belonging? 

Tony Jack: Intentionality is always a hard one, because there are some people who actually don't care. But I think the vast majority of people do care and think that they are doing the right thing. But we know that just because you think you're doing the right thing doesn't mean you actually are. I think the biggest problem is people conflate access and inclusion, and the two are not the same. 

The Dean of Students Office lags far behind the Admissions Office, and that's been a longstanding thing. But in this context, we have adopted no loan financial aid policies at a number of schools. John Hopkins University just went need-blind so that they can admit more students with that $1.8 billion gift from Bloomberg. But I think that's where people stop, to be honest. It's like, oh, once you're in, you got the golden ticket, you're OK, and that's not it. 

What they're saying is if we admit more students now, in 10 or 15 years, we're changing the structure of the middle and upper classes. Like if you graduated from an elite school, your potential for making it into higher-income or high-status positions, they're thinking long term in that sense. But what one could argue the short sided nature is they think that just an admissions letter and a generous financial aid package is all you need. That is not all you need. Because if your campus policies still privilege those from certain backgrounds who know how to navigate these offices, who know what office hours are from the moment they walk in, when many people across the country have never heard the term office hours until they get to a college campus. 

Jill Anderson: Right. 

Tony Jack: Right? So if we continue to privilege privilege in different ways, no matter how much demographic diversity that we are able to accumulate on our campuses, we will still hurt those who are on our college campuses if we don't change our ways, if we don't, as I will say till I'm blue in the face, question what we take for granted. I was 31 years old, 32 maybe, and a Harvard professor the first time I heard the word bursar, and that was because I was listening to the Hamilton soundtrack. I had never heard of-- I've heard of comptroller, financial aid, and different money offices on campus. I had never heard the term bursar. 

That's one example that I think is funny because people think I study higher education, these terms shouldn't be new to me. In high school, we didn't have syllabi. Back home, no one knew what a fellowship, internship, or externship was. Again, that's something that is lost in translation when students enter college. There's a new vocabulary that we, as faculty members and school administrators, automatically just jump right into, not knowing that we are leaving some of our students to the boundaries with the language that we use. I actually define office hours on all my syllabi now--

Jill Anderson: Interesting. 

Tony Jack: --what they are, not just when, office hours are a time that I dedicate to meeting with students, and I give students three buckets to put their questions in. Questions that relate to the course material, questions that pertain to larger issues of graduate school or how the things that we are discussing in the class relate to larger social issues, and I'm really interested in fellowships and other opportunities to expand beyond Harvard. And I actually put that on the syllabus, and I adjust it every time I teach, depending on the class. 

If it's a seminar class that is in the fall, students are very interested in applying for Ph.D. programs, my master's students, so I make time to talk about that process in office hours. In the spring, people are trying to figure out what they're going to be doing next year, so we adjust it a little bit for that. But I think taking that affirmative step to say, this is what this is for, this is your time. 

I was talking to a dean at Dean College here in Massachusetts, and she said that for two years, students didn't visit her office hours. And she finally got the courage to ask why. And she said that her students told her, predominately working-class students, that, well, you said that they were your office hours, and we thought that meant that we couldn't bother you because that was your time to do your work. 

To understand why students adopt certain strategies when they enter our classroom or our labs, we have to understand where they're coming from and the experiences that shape their strategies for action along the way. It is understanding how many of your students went to Andover, both paying and scholarship, and those who went to the inner-city school or the less resource school down the street. It is paying attention to, for whom is college elite and who is a skip? If we continue the thing that's only a skip for rich white students and all the Black students are going to be over here, we're always going to set ourself a stereotypical policies that simply missed the mark. We have to be really intentional about interrogating the diversity that is our student body. 

Jill Anderson: One of the really compelling arguments you make in this book is the need to do more before we get to college. As you highlight, the privileged poor will end up going to elite spaces and can navigate it a little bit better than the doubly disadvantaged. And you talk about a need for incredible resources for all kids, especially disadvantaged children. 

Tony Jack: I always think about that statistic from Pat Sharkey's book, where he found that African Americans in the United States that make $100,000 live in as disadvantaged neighborhoods for white families that make $30,000 a year. A Black family has to make three times as much as a white family to live in the same kind of neighborhood. Think about what that means when we talk about access to parks, feeling safe walking around, what kind of schools they have access to. 

I mean, to answer this question, I need a whole seminar on urban and rural poverty. The fact is, we need serious social policy to tackle the entrenched structural inequalities that plague our neighborhoods and schools. It is not giving vouchers to students so they can go to private schools. That's abdicating responsibility. It's not this let's put everybody in private school. 

If anything, my research shows that when you give lower-income students the resources equal to their peers, they do very well. It's not a matter of who's better or who's worse. It's who gets access to the resources. It's not this  town to tent model of putting all our best poor student into rich white schools. 

No, that's just making it worse for everybody else. We don't really discuss rural poverty almost at all. The issues that those students face who make that jump from the hollows of West Virginia are both similar in kind, but very different than those who comes from inner city Miami, like me and my peers. 

Jill Anderson: So have the students who are in this book, what is their reaction then to it? 

Tony Jack: I see myself in them, because I can remember stepping foot on Amherst's campus with my mom and my brother. It was fall, and my brother saw something run across the street. He was like Tony, I drove all the way up from Miami, and you spent all this money on this school, and y'all got rats. And I remember us finding out an hour later it was a chipmunk. But he was so excited and scared that we had to make jokes to cut the tension. 

And I see that at move in. I see that at family weekend for those families who can make it. And I'll never forget that move in because it was like this-- everybody was scared, but it was a joyous time. We used jokes to cut the tension. 

And so this book-- and I'm very upfront about being a first-generation college student, I'm very upfront about my experiences at Amherst, both the failures and the successes. This book is for us, those first-gens who are embarking upon that journey, because it's scary. It is scary. I was three-hour flight from home. I had never seen snow before. 

Actually, I only missed three days of class at Amherst my entire undergrad career. I'll never forget October 31, 2003, because we had a little snow. And I was like, I'm not going outside. And I was like, what is this? 

First-generation student identity is becoming more central to students in a way that previous generations, it was just accepted. It wasn't something to rally around. It wasn't something to have a group, like the First Gen Student Union, which is now Primus, here at Harvard and other universities around the country. And I've always had a very strong class identity, because it was something that we always had to manage at home. 

Managing money was always something that we had to do. I hope people pick up this book, especially first-gen students, they see themselves not just in the stories of the students who I write about, but I hope that they see themselves in the larger narrative that I try to write about myself about the transitions for college universities to become more diverse, and hopefully diverse leads to not just accessible, but inclusive. And so I want them to see themselves in that narrative as well. 

Jill Anderson: So what advice do you have for those first-gen students who might be listening? 

Tony Jack: Be unapologetically elite. I did not say elitism or elitist. But be unapologetically elite in a sense that never apologize for your accomplishments and any and everything that you had to overcome. It is incredibly important to, every once in a while, look in the mirror and say, I did it. I am good. 

Or as I listen to Becoming by the first lady Michelle Obama, who's also a first-generation college student, but to actually say, I am enough. I am doing enough and want to push myself to keep doing that and become better. I can't tell you how many times that people tried to get me to either apologize or question why I was admitted to something, or made me feel bad that I was in the top 5% in the GPAs at my high school, or something like that. 

And it got to a point in college where I had to realize, you know what, I earned a lot of this. I had help with a lot of this. I'm not going to try to downplay all the stuff that I went through, and I hate when students are forced to or feel forced to do that. I want students to be more accepting of themselves, their triumphs, and the trials that come along with that. 

Because all of this you only got in because of affirmative action, or oh, that's boasting, all that kind of stuff, that's BS. No, it's you earned a spot. You earned the grades. You're going to push yourself to do better. If you want something, do not be afraid to go and get it. 

I still have to remind myself to be unapologetic. That doesn't mean broadcast. It doesn't mean oh, I did this today. No, it just means that no one will ever make me apologize or feel bad about being good at something. Because I'm just trying to follow the advice that my mom gave me on the first day of school, and that was something really simple, and I'm pretty sure a lot of listeners will hear the same thing-- do good, behave, and don't embarrass me. 


Jill Anderson: Wow. Thank you so much. I'm sure she's not embarrassed now, right? 

Tony Jack: Only when I go home and then forget to take out the trash. 

Jill Anderson: Thank you so much, Tony. 

Tony Jack: Thank you. 

Jill Anderson: Tony Jack is an Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He is the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Universities Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Read more about Tony Jack's work:

Photo by Todd Dionne


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