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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 JackHarvard 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.

Read more about Tony Jack's work:
About the Harvard EdCast

The Harvard EdCast is a weekly podcast featuring brief conversations with education leaders and innovative thinkers from across the country and around the world. Hosted by Jill Anderson, the EdCast is a dynamic space for discourse about problems and transformative solutions in education, shining a light on the compelling people, policies, practices, and ideas shaping the field. Find the EdCast on iTunes, Soundcloud, and Stitcher

Photo by Todd Dionne