Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Privileged Poor

    How Elite Universities Are Failing Disadvantaged Students

    Anthony Abraham Jack

    Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019. 276 pp. $27.95 (cloth).

    In the past decade, researchers, policy makers, and college administrators have increasingly come to recognize that for poor, first-generation, and otherwise disadvantaged students, acceptance to college is not the same as acceptance in college. Even in the most selective colleges and universities, so-called elite schools, first-generation students often struggle to navigate the complex social and bureaucratic systems whose navigation is essential for success. Similarly, even when receiving scholarships to cover the costs of tuition, research has shown that the extra costs of social life, travel, and participation in extracurricular activities can place additional stress and hardship on poor students. Yet, the overlapping nature of these social and economic student characteristics has prohibited most researchers from disentangling how the barriers facing poor students might be different from those faced by first-generation students.

    In The Privileged Poor, Anthony Jack interviewed and compared the stories of three groups of students from the same elite school, Renowned University (pseudonym), to clarify the roles that cultural and economic capital play in their ability to thrive and succeed in college. The collection of this rich interview data was facilitated by Jack’s immersion in Renowned. He recruited students he met at public events and while eating in the cafeteria, reached out through student organizations, and employed snowball sampling. His position also granted him unique access to university administration, which helped him advocate for policy changes to support disadvantaged students as well as gain insight into the institutional obstacles that prevent universities from being able to quickly and efficiently respond to student needs.

    The book’s title refers to students from lower-income backgrounds who arrive on college campuses after having attended an elite preparatory high school. Nationally, these students represent approximately half of lower-income students and one-third of lower-income Latinx students on elite college campuses. In the elite college setting, these students have experiences that provide an informative counterexample to those of lower-income students who arrive on campus directly from neighborhood schools. This latter group of students, which Jack terms the “Doubly Disadvantaged” (DD), tend to struggle with the culture shock of studying and living alongside extremely wealthy peers and with navigating the complex bureaucracies of financial aid, course registration, and academic advising. The “Privileged Poor” (PP), however, have had experiences in prep school that prepare them to navigate college campuses and allow them to overcome some, but not all, of the institutional and social barriers that lower-income students usually face. Standing in stark contrast are the “Upper Income” (UI) students, who most closely fit the description of the typical elite college student, and these students face almost no barriers to successful participation and integration into campus life.

    The stories of these three groups of students are organized into three main chapters, each dealing with a specific aspect of their lives at Renowned. Social and academic transitions are described in the first two chapters, with UI and PP students describing largely parallel experiences. PP students’ experiences in elite prep schools gave them tools to make a successful transition into Renowned University. While most PP students reported being initially taken aback by the extreme wealth displayed by their high school peers, they learned not to be surprised by the frequent trips around the world, casual purchases (and disposal) of high-end designer clothes, and other displays of privilege that wealthy students took for granted. In contrast, DD students felt alienated by the typical Renowned students’ implicit and explicit displays of wealth and privilege. DD students often refrained from sharing their family backgrounds with peers or declined to participate in expensive social outings. Such experiences made the transition to Renowned difficult for DD students and contributed to what many described as a “toxic environment.”

    Scholastic transitions followed similar patterns for each of these groups. Although there was similar variation within each of the groups in terms of how academically prepared students felt, major differences emerged in the way students described dealing with their academic struggles. PP and UI students both felt comfortable taking full advantage of university services like teaching assistants, independent tutors, and professors’ office hours. That they were comfortable approaching professors and expected that they would be well received meant that they were able to form genuine personal relationships with professors, which granted them support in their courses, access to job opportunities, and high-quality recommendations throughout their time at Renowned. DD students instead operated under a mind-set of self-reliance, believing that they should work through their academic struggles themselves rather than immediately ask for help when difficulty arose. This reluctance often extended beyond making connections to professors, as DD students rarely reached out to tutoring, counseling, or other support services Renowned offered.

    The third chapter, however, stands in contrast to the first two. Here, Jack investigates the ways in which PP students’ economic backgrounds still present obstacles and hardships that align them much closer to DD students than to UI students. Notably, in spite of the generous financial aid that students at Renowned receive and the effort the university has made to encourage lower-income students to enroll, some of the very policies that aim to help these students instead serve to further alienate them from their wealthier peers. Specifically, one work study program designed to allow students to earn extra money involved students cleaning the bathrooms in student dorms. Higher wages made this job attractive to students looking to earn money, but many students felt humiliated by cleaning up after their wealthier peers and felt that they were treated, both explicitly and implicitly, as second-class students. Similarly, a program to subsidize student attendance at campus events by providing reduced prices or free tickets was also turned into a site for alienation and exclusion, as separate lines were set up for these tickets, identifying and segregating students who qualified for them.

    Throughout the book, Jack makes a convincing case that both researchers and policy makers should be paying close attention to class as a major factor influencing student outcomes. With this in mind, he argues that the divergence between the stories of the PP and the DD students indicates that income is not the only factor that should be considered when addressing class inequality. Also, to treat all lower-income students the same would be to overlook many of the assets that students from elite prep schools bring. At the same time, the social capital that these students have at their disposal does not dispel the many obstacles they face from lack of financial resources.

    The attention Jack pays to the role of class comes somewhat at the expense of a closer investigation into how students’ races affect their transition into an elite college. Although it is not overlooked completely, Jack admits in his introduction that this focus was intentional, and thus he describes students’ accounts of how race played into their experiences primarily when the students themselves raise the issue. One cannot expect one study to examine all aspects of a complex phenomenon like the transition to college, but The Privileged Poor is instructive for researchers looking to expand on these findings. The close comparison Jack employs in disentangling the effects of financial and cultural capital provides an ambitious template that should encourage future researchers who want to study how intersections of identities and experiences affect student life.

    Jack couples the empirical findings from student interviews with recommendations for college and university administrators. He focuses on ways that they can better accommodate lower-income students overall, specifically how within the category of “lower-income students” the diversity of life experiences means that the level of support students need can range widely. One compelling example was his attempt to convince administrators to keep campus dining halls open during spring break. Simply explaining that lower-income students were facing chronic shortages of food during spring break was not enough to convince administrators to make the recommended change. Although Jack was eventually successful in changing this policy, the long list of people he had to convince and the multiple sources of evidence he was required to marshal should give pause to universities that believe they are well equipped to respond to student needs in a timely and sensitive manner.

    In making these recommendations, Jack focuses almost exclusively on the policies and programs that colleges can implement to ameliorate the problems of social alienation, resource underutilization, and financial hardship experienced by Doubly Disadvantaged and Privileged Poor students at Renowned. While it is true that institutions can and need to do more to support lower-income students on their campuses, many of the problems faced by these students, especially those having to do with fitting in, seem to be caused by the behaviors and actions of peers. The increasing segregation and stratification by income is a fact that colleges and universities must grapple with but cannot solve by themselves. While it is heartening to see that cultural capital can be accrued by lower-income students who are exposed to upper-income peers in elite prep schools, I was struck by the fact that there seems to be less of a focus on preparing upper-income students to exist and interact with people from different social or racial strata. By focusing on what colleges and universities can do to ameliorate these problems, we risk both broadening their mission in ways that might be detrimental to their core goals and merely treating the symptoms of a more deeply rooted social problem.

    Thomas Kelley-Kemple
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