- The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students by Anthony Abraham Jack
Anthony Abraham Jack
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019, 288 pages, $27.95 (hardcover)
Anthony Jack shines a spotlight on the undergraduate experience of low-income students attending our nation’s most selective universities. In the introductory chapter, he summarizes past research related to the demographic distribution of college students. He acknowledges that “no-loan financial aid” packages increase low-income students’ access to higher education generally and allow elite universities to recruit some of the most gifted low-income students. Jack argues recruitment practices of affluent universities prioritize low-income students from preparatory high schools, but once matriculated, their distinction is cloaked by an assumption of homogeneity among all low-income students.
Based on interview data from 76 low-income students attending an elite university, alias “Renowned University,” Jack reaches a broad conclusion that “not all poor students experience these places in the same way” (p. 29). He specifically argues that the distinct educational pathways by which talented low-income students come to campus inform their ability to negotiate key aspects of university life. He distinguishes between the Privileged [End Page 263] Poor, students who attend affluent preparatory high schools, and the Doubly Disadvantaged, students who attend unevenly resourced public high schools. He is transparent that his own educational narrative assigns him to the former group, and he explicitly states one of his primary aims is “to introduce readers to the Privileged Poor, a group of students that has been largely overlooked and to compare their experiences with those of the Doubly Disadvantaged” (p.21). Jack also argues that the way university policies and norms engage low-income students undermines the quality of their undergraduate experience. This book consists of five chapters with chapters 1 through 3 residing between an introduction and conclusion. In the Appendix, Jack provides a detailed account of his subjects, methodology, various conceptual points of discussion, and his emotional struggles throughout the project.
In chapters 1 and 2, Jack shares students’ responses to questions related to their transition to college. He compares how the Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged negotiate conventions of social engagement and academic expectations at Renowned. Chapter 1 focuses on peer interactions and general feelings of belonging. Chapter 2 concerns their interactions with and perceptions of faculty and other college officials.
Following these responses, he explains that there has been a “lumping” of low-income students based on a presumption that all lack “cultural capital—a result of not having grown up in middle-class homes with middle-class norms” (p. 81). A lack of cultural capital makes their transition to college taxing and undermines their social and emotional well-being. The stories of the Privileged Poor indicate that an affluent high school experience bolsters students’ acquisition of college-bound competencies—cultural capital—despite social class. Jack laments that by focusing on students’ family attributes, “researchers have downplayed the socializing force of high schools as well as the starkly different experiences of different groups of poor students” (p. 82). He challenges university administration and faculty to take a more nuanced looked at low-income students to understand a diverse population with distinct needs.
In chapter 3, Jack shares students’ stories related to larger institutional engagement, highlighting the shared challenges of the Privileged Poor and the Doubly Disadvantaged. He describes how elite universities have policies and practices that disproportionately burden low-income students and exacerbate their marginalization. Because these experiences are imposed by larger institutional norms, as opposed to negotiations at the interpersonal level, he refers to them as “processes of structural exclusion” (p. 23). Jack describes the effect of two specific programs at Renowned then addresses a universal college phenomenon: spring break. At Renowned, all cafeterias close during the intersession. Wealthier students who remain on campus have economic agency to frequent off-campus eateries, while low-income students experience food insecurity. Jack highlights the fact that the acumen of the Privileged Poor to negotiate interpersonal and academic relationships does not absolve them from the reality of being poor. Like their Doubly Disadvantaged peers...