Privileged Poor vs. Doubly Disadvantaged at Elite Schools
As a professor at a fairly large state university, I have noticed a pattern during my years of teaching. Students who consistently avail themselves of office hours, to seek clarification on course content, to chat, or to do both, have attended, on average, private preparatory, parochial, or high performing public high schools.
The moment these students walk into my office, it is clear that they were prepped to see professors as allies, not adversaries. At a minimum, they are admiringly self-possessed.
Having casually kept in touch with these students throughout their undergraduate years, I have found that they often excel in the classroom and confidently take advantage of the many opportunities around campus to learn and engage. There are two questions that arise from these observations: first, are they correct? And second, if so, what is it about high performing high schools that make the difference?
Each of these questions are considered in Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Jack’s argument is that it is well and good that elite campuses continue to diversify their student bodies, but it is not enough. They must also recognize that lower income students are different. Among these students there are real cultural differences and levels of college preparedness because of the high schools from which they graduated. These differences are captured in what he refers to as the Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged.
The Privileged Poor are lower-income graduates of wealthy private high schools like St. Paul’s School in New Hampshire and Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts. These students, according to Jack, have benefited from all the resources and opportunities their exclusive high schools provided—study abroad programs, language immersion, and contact with faculty with higher degrees. As Jack puts it, “Lower income graduates from these schools enter college already accustomed to navigating elite academic arenas, already familiar with the ways and customs of the rich. True, they are poor, but they have the privilege of an early introduction to the world they will enter in college.”
The Doubly Disadvantaged on the other hand, tend to be students of color and from local public high schools that are under-sourced, racially and socioeconomically segregated, overcrowded, and chaotic. Often the teachers in these schools are younger, inexperienced, and unsupported. According to Jack, when these students “first set foot on an elite college campus, it looks, feels, and functions like nothing they have experienced before.”
Jack would know; he has first-hand experience with both groups. In 2007, he graduated from Amherst College by way of Gulliver Preparatory school in Florida. Having transferred to Gulliver his senior year from a rough, local public high school, he says he learned to negotiate the world of wealth, class and advanced degrees at the elite private school. Gulliver was his training ground for Amherst College.
The psychological assets possessed by the Privileged Poor in contrast to the Doubly Disadvantaged determine the academic and social trajectory of each group on elite college campuses. Jack’s book sets out to illustrate, through campus interviews, how each group of students experience a prestigious undergraduate institution. He does not identify the institution where he conducted his research; he simply refers to it as Renowned. From all indications, he is most likely referencing his alma mater, Amherst College.
The interviews show that the Privileged Poor’s cultural competence puts them at ease among the high academic demands of the college and the experiences and affluence of the student body. One interviewee, a Privileged Poor African American, typifies the role of cultural competence. She explains how she navigates discussions of travel among rich, white students:
“People travel a lot. In conversations with a lot of women, especially wealthier women, there’s a lot of talk about Europe, South America, or ‘Oh, I was in France two weeks ago. Me and my family backpacked around wherever.’ When I was in high school, I got to experience these things with my friends. People were talking about their yacht, where they bought houses . . . I learned how to engage in conversation, and the conversations are going similar ways in college. Especially after going to France, too.”
The Doubly Disadvantaged student, on the other hand, often feels alienated on campus because they lack cultural competence. Typical of this type of student is Valeria, a working-class Latina who discusses her ambivalence about reaching out to her professors at Renowned:
“My being comfortable going to office hours: that’s the social class thing. I don’t like talking to professors one on one. That’s negative because Renowned really wants you to be proactive. And raise your hand. And talk. Freshman year, I didn’t say a word . . . My dad would always teach me, ‘You don’t want to get where you are based on kissing ass, right?’”
It is clear from Valeria’s comments that her personal expectations and the expectations of Renowned are at odds. Both her family and the local public high school she attended reinforced a set of values and expectations that made it difficult for her to engage with her professors. Several other interviews with Doubly Disadvantaged students reveal, for example, that as college freshman they initially thought professors should not be disturbed during the hours posted on their syllabus as “office hours.” Whereas the Privileged Poor freshmen, having graduated from academically and socially elite high schools, knew office hours meant just the opposite.
In addition to highlighting the differences between lower-income students on an elite college campus, Jack concludes his book by highlighting some of the common experiences that unite the Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged at Renowned. Both groups are poor on a wealthy campus and, according to Jack, suffer from structural exclusion.
One example of the exclusion he is referring to is the practice of suspending meal services on campus during spring break; a practice Jack has fought to change. The assumption at Renowned, according to Jack, is that all students either return home or travel during spring break. The Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged have to remain on campus because they lack the funds to return home or have dysfunctional homes they cannot return to. Consequently, lower-income students are forced to spend what little money they do have on food for a week.
Experiences like these unite the Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged. However, the majority of Jack’s book consists of discussing the differences between these two groups of lower-income students at the elite college.
Overall, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students is two books in one. The first “book” tells a compelling story about the role “gateway institutions,” like high schools, play in equipping students with the skills to flourish in college. In making his case, Jack is solidly in the sociological tradition of Shamus Rahman Khan and Binder and Wood. Each of these authors recognize that a student’s cultural competence stems from broad institutional influences, not just from the family. The distinction between the Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged, along with the illustrations of how both groups of students navigate elite college campuses, is insightful and contains potential avenues for further exploration.
The second “book” devolves, unfortunately, into a clumsy discussion of inequality, structural racism and privilege. Nothing is wrong with these topics per se, but he seems intent on exaggerating and politicizing some of the issues he observed at Renowned. For example, his discussion of the Doubly Disadvantaged does not make it clear how they end up at elite colleges.
According to Jack, nearly half of the Doubly Disadvantaged report not participating in any college assistance programs in high school. Accordingly, the reader is left to wonder if these students bumbled their way into elite colleges. It takes effort and support to apply to college or university, let alone, an elite one. The more plausible possibility is that the Doubly Disadvantaged student showed some promise at their local public high school, received support and was encouraged to apply to an elite college.
Unlike the Privileged Poor who make it into elite schools through pipeline programs like Prep for Prep or A Better Chance, Jack portrays the Doubly Disadvantaged as if they have very little personal autonomy or drive in the face of pervasive, structural racism. Playing up the contrast, at times, between the privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged seems to account for some of the exaggeration in his analysis.
Jack’s discussion of the closure of Renowned’s cafeteria during spring break and its impact on the Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged deserves comment. The point that needs acknowledging is that it is not always fiscally prudent to keep college dining halls consistently open during breaks and designated holidays because a very small percentage of students remain on campus during these periods. Even the most well-endowed colleges have budget constraints. Moreover, the funds needed to cover the cost of opening the ding hall during spring break might mean fewer lower-income students get accepted with full funding. Those who remain on campus—international students, athletes, lower-income students—typically make plans to feed themselves during the week the dining hall is closed.
Jack’s interviews with lower-income students who remain on campus during spring break suggest that the college’s indifference toward their situation is motivated by privilege. Their argument is that Renowned is so used to catering to wealthy, white students, it fails to see that lower-income students of color are practically starving in their dorms. In fact, we are told that one of his interviewees fainted from a lack of food during spring break. We also are told that Renowned is a “food desert” during routine closures of the dining hall. It may not be privilege, but cost and student usage that could be the actual cause of the dining hall closing. A little more investigation is needed to support his claims.
It is clear from Jack’s concluding remarks about the Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged that he believes elite colleges have an obligation to obscure the presence of wealthy students on campus to make lower-income students feel comfortable. For Jack, it is not enough for elite colleges to have admitted the Privileged Poor and the Doubly disadvantaged—to have initiated their inevitable upward mobility. He seems to suggest that elite colleges must micromanage students’ lives on campus, lest a chance encounter between students reveals a wealth disparity. However, the most important obligation of an elite college is to foster a civil learning environment and to educate their students.
Andre Archie is an associate professor of ancient Greek philosophy at Colorado State University and the author of Politics in Socrates’ Alcibiades: A Philosophical Account of Plato’s “Alcibiades Major.”