Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack speaks about improving economic inclusiveness at colleges
As a student at Amherst College, Anthony Jack experienced firsthand what it’s like to be a low-income student on a wealthy campus.
Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University, and author of the acclaimed book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, came to Connecticut College this week to meet with faculty, administrators and students and discuss ways to ensure all students have the same opportunities.
Jack wrapped up the day—which marked his third visit to Connecticut College over the past few years—with a lecture and book signing.
Speaking passionately about his sometimes bumpy transition from being a low-income high school student in Florida to a college student at Amherst, Jack spoke of the tendency for institutions to overlook some basic needs of less-privileged students, such as keeping dining halls open during breaks for students who can’t afford to go home. He argued that it’s critical for faculty and administrators to have an increased awareness of students’ backgrounds.
“There is a 23 billion dollar gap in federal funding between school districts that are predominantly white and the districts that mostly serve students of color,” Jack explained. “That obviously creates profound inequality in terms of students’ high school experiences, and that reality and cultural context need to be taken into account by colleges and universities.”
Disadvantaged students have often been mistakenly viewed as a monolithic group with shared challenges. But as student bodies become increasingly socio-economically diverse, Jack says institutions need to recognize the unique obstacles students face once they arrive on campus, and make sure students from all backgrounds are getting the support they need not only in terms of social integration, but in terms of navigating established academic structures and cultures.
“Getting admitted is different from being accepted,” Jack said, adding that while students who attended elite private high schools usually have more experience building relationships with teachers who can write letters of recommendation and are taught other key skills that offer a competitive edge, students who come from troubled and underfunded high schools need more guidance when they go off to college.
One simple example Jack offered was the concept of faculty office hours, where students can have access to their professors outside of the classroom.
“We tell new students when office hours are, but we often don’t explain to them what they are and how to take advantage of them,” Jack said.
For his book, Jack spent two years researching and interviewing dozens of undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds. One thing he came to realize is that while elite institutions have made tremendous progress in diversifying their campuses, many of the new students who have been admitted, despite their racial and socioeconomic diversity, still come from the same elite private high schools that have served as feeders to the nation’s top colleges for generations. In other words, a student may come from a disadvantaged background, but they still find themselves better prepared for the academic culture that greets them when they go to college. This is part of the “privileged poor” demographic that Jack writes about.
“Anthony has really inspired us and galvanized a number of us in various departments across campus to think about what we can do for students in terms of providing them the services and resources they need,” said Jefferson Singer, dean of the College.