With my Social Stratification course recently concluded, I’m reflecting on a book filled with sociological insights about the college experience. The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, by Anthony Abraham Jack, is a book I highly recommend and one that my students enjoyed reading and learning about during the course.
We learn a lot about “Renowned University,” a pseudonym for a highly ranked and selective college where the majority of students are affluent, with one third of undergraduates coming from a family with an annual income of at least $250,000, and one eighth of undergraduates from a family with an income of $630,000 or higher. Jack notes that many students come from some of the wealthiest families in the world.
Three groups are the focus of this book:
The “Privileged Poor” are students from poor backgrounds who went to exclusive high schools. Because they’ve had years of experience navigating elite spaces, they are familiar with wealthy people and wealthy places when they arrive at college.
The “Doubly Disadvantaged” are students from poor backgrounds who went to underfunded neighborhood schools. This group experiences a strong sense of culture shock when they get to campus. Jack explains: “When they first set foot on an elite college campus, it looks, feels, and functions like nothing they have experienced before” (p. 11).
Something that privileged poor and doubly disadvantaged students have in common is they endure the adversity that comes with being poor. A difference is that privileged poor students are relatively at ease at Renowned because of their high school experiences, while doubly disadvantaged students are poor and unfamiliar with the environment at Renowned.
The third group are affluent students (designated throughout the book as “Upper Income”). These are students who can afford to hire an interior decorator to makeover their dorm rooms. Some students in this group can afford to travel on private jets and have second homes for vacation (in some cases, even third homes).
Given their background, the transition to Renowned was generally seamless for wealthy students. However, Renowned wasn’t entirely familiar to every affluent student. One student, for example, was surprised to meet a peer with parents who were stakeholders in a major sports team. Another upper income student expressed culture shock on the basis of coming from Texas to the Northeast. But these students didn’t experience these differences as alienating. To them, Renowned felt like home.
Next, I will mention some of the many compelling themes and examples in this book.
- Although approximately 50 percent of undergraduates are white, and 75 percent of the faculty identify as white, white students don’t automatically fit in at Renowned. There are white students at Renowned who feel a sense of alienation on the basis of class differences. Elise serves as a good example. She and her family experienced multiple evictions. “I know someone who’s fourth-generation Renowned; it’s insane,” she said, and “I always feel that I don’t belong” (pp. 44-45). William (also a doubly disadvantaged, white student) said being at Renowned was the first time being poor had made him feel like an outsider. He couldn’t relate to how often students went out to eat and what they could afford to pay for food. Nor could he relate to the career aspirations of his classmates. Simply put, the value of making money was not a value he shared with his wealthy classmates.
- Even though Renowned is a familiar and comfortable environment for privileged poor students, they still face problems associated with growing up in poverty and in distressed communities. As Jack says, “Students do not stop being poor or lose all connection to their background when they enroll in college” (p. 77).
A detail that saddened me is that some low-income students were disowned by their families. Their family members felt left behind, as if they were abandoned by their children due to their schooling opportunities. Family conflict is a reason we can’t assume students will go home for breaks during the academic year.
Some impoverished students experience food insecurity and may avoid going home because they think they will be a burden. Michelle (a privileged poor student who experienced eviction and homelessness), said:
Last spring break I stayed here. I didn’t want to go back home and burden my mom with having another person in the room. It’s really super small; smaller than this office. So I stayed here with my friend from California. We went to a food pantry. Got tons of food (p. 172).
- Upper income students were very comfortable connecting with professors and administrators. Similarly, privileged poor students were comfortable and proactive when interacting with faculty and asking for help. Privileged poor students liked making connections. They gained practice cultivating relationships at an elite institution during high school. Conversely, doubly disadvantaged students avoiding networking. They intentionally kept a distance from professors and were reluctant to ask for help. Doubly disadvantaged students felt that other students were “sucking up” to professors. As Daniel said (p. 109): “These kids who go to professors after class and just talk to them…They’re kiss-asses!”
- One of the most interesting examples in the book is the Community Detail program, which involved hiring students to work as janitors on campus. It was offered as a pre-orientation program for incoming students, and was also a work study eligible job during the academic year. It was the only pre-orientation program that paid students.
For the most part, wealthy students didn’t work in Community Detail (and if they did, they didn’t last long in the job). Students from poor backgrounds were much more likely to take the job and stay in it longer. My students could easily understand that it’s problematic to put low-income students in the position of cleaning the dorm rooms and bathrooms of their wealthy peers.
For Jose (a doubly disadvantaged, Latino student), cleaning dorm rooms was too close to home, considering that his mother was a domestic worker who cleaned the homes of affluent white families. He said, “I wanted to have my mom feel like her hard work was paying off. You know, my mom always said ‘I don’t want you to ever do this when you’re older’” (p. 146). Stacy (a doubly disadvantaged, Black student) said that Community Detail workers are treated like maids: “To have to get on your hands and knees and scrub their toilets, it says a lot about the divides here between who has to work and who doesn’t…They let their bathrooms get dirty because they know Community Detail’s going to clean it up” (p. 148).
- The Scholarship Plus program is a good example of a program at Renowned that was meant to be inclusive, but produced the opposite effect. In this program, low-income students were provided five free tickets each semester to campus events. Most students who received full financial assistance were eligible. Students appreciated opportunities to see performances and attend campus events at no cost.
However, there was a serious flaw in the program. At campus events, there were two lines. One line was for students who were paying (mostly white students) and the other line was for Scholarship Plus students (mostly Black and Latino students). The thought process was it would be less stigmatizing if students didn’t have to ask for a Scholarship Plus ticket if students were all in the same line. In practice, however, the system of separate lines amplified differences between students rather than facilitating their social integration. As Jack observes, seeing this, you’d think, “Well look at that – a rich line and a poor line!” (p. 158). In recognition the system was poorly designed, Renowned made a change so that students could print tickets in advance of events.
I will conclude by sharing important points by the author. He makes an excellent point in saying it’s not enough to bring students to campus from underrepresented backgrounds. Being present on a college campus is not the same thing as feeling as if you belong there and can thrive during the college experience. We need to improve our programs and policies in ways that will foster inclusion and improve students’ academic and social experiences. To borrow a phrase from the title of a TED talk by Jack, “access ain’t inclusion.” All colleges should ask: how can we do a better job of being a welcoming and supportive place for all of our students?