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Harvard Professor Says Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students

Yale university buildings in spring blue sky in New Haven, CT
Yale university buildings in spring blue sky in New Haven, CT

When students from low-income backgrounds enter top colleges the transition can be difficult. Harvard education professor Anthony Jack talks about some of the hurdles these students face in his new book "The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students."

Jack calls these students the "doubly disadvantaged." They're mostly students of color who didn't go to a private high school or a highly-rated public school; places that could better prepare them for university life.

He recently joined Krys Boyd on “Think” to talk about some of the hurdles these students face.


Do you think many schools are more concerned with racial and ethnic diversity than with income diversity?

I think a lot of places — especially schools — still just struggle with race. They struggle with talking about it. They struggle with understanding. And sometimes stereotypes outpace reality. What I mean by that is a lot of people forget that many of the black students at selective colleges were actually the children of doctors and lawyers ... very upper middle class, or upper class individuals. And so, the interesting thing is that diversity becomes a catch-all term.

But as we push for socioeconomic diversity by offering things like no loan financial aid programs, you begin to have a greater socioeconomic diversity. You began having more first generation college students and students of color. But white students also benefit from these no loan financial aid policies.

In what ways do low-income students feel out of place at a prestigious university?

For some students it's things like going out to eat a lot. Now, it's one thing to say, you're going to Bonchon or if you're going to McDonald's or something like that, but there are students who say things like, 'oh, my gosh, the lobster sandwiches are so cheap here, it’s only $50.'

Have schools tried to ease low-income students' transitions by helping their privileged classmates beter understand their different experiences? 

There are different things that colleges do. To me is the ultimate goal is for students to actually understand who is sitting with them, to the left and to the right. The problem is you can't force it, so colleges have used different initiatives.

I think the common reads for all incoming freshmen is a way in which universities try to elevate the conversation beyond 'this person is from North Dakota, this person is from Atlanta, this person is from Massachusetts, y'all should be friends.' It tries to spark a conversation about who we are in the world. Does that actually trickle down? I'm not sure.

When you think about the work of people who study sororities, fraternities and different kinds of clubs and secret societies, we know that there are clubs where if you are not from a certain class background, you just can't get in. And who controls access to those institutions? People talk about, self-segregation on a lot on college campuses, but they always say, ‘oh why are all the black kids sitting together’ or ‘why do all the brown kids sit together,’ and forget that they are literally sitting in a sea of white people who only interact with each other, and especially how segregated by class that is.

One of the greatest advantages of going to an elite school is that you form relationships with people who will be useful to you later in life. Are students who are "doubly disadvantaged" missing out on that? 

More of the "doubly disadvantaged" told me that they do not see themselves in the private sector, because if they had such a hellish undergrad experience at a place that claimed to want them there, are they going to even apply to a place that doesn't even pretend to do so?

And so, you're right that one of the most valuable parts about going to college in general, let alone the elite one, is who your peers are, because that becomes a network for life. I think "doubly disadvantaged" students' networks look very different, and their desire to enter into certain spaces is different. Because again, the experiences they have in college shape where they see their futures.

Interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Galilee Abdullah is an arts reporter.