Unpacking Elite Institutions and Class Consciousness

An adage, well-known and regularly lived in community colleges, is that access does not equal success. Access is essential, of course, but access alone is no triumph for inclusion. Getting students in the door is very different than having students graduate. The adage can hold true at selective institutions, too, as explained by Anthony Jack, a newly minted professor of education at Harvard’s School of Education, in his book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. It is a solid work of scholarship that unpacks many different issues in and around elite institutions of higher education and their work with less advantaged (e.g., African American, Hispanic, poor) students.

Jack, who is black, grew up in Florida attending poorly funded public schools. His mom worked long hours to support three kids. Jack was awarded a scholarship to finish high school at an elite prep school. It was his first direct exposure to students with privilege and wealth. When admitted to Amherst College, his first every airplane flight was to attend. Jack was an outstanding student. He followed his undergraduate education with a sociology doctorate at Harvard. His dissertation, and the two years of research talking with students, faculty and staff at an unnamed elite institutions, served as the foundation for this book.

The key realization that drives the book was initially grounded in Jack’s personal experience and then greatly expanded into full-fledged research. From his earliest days at Amherst he noticed that while the institution tended to view race and disadvantage through one narrow lens, the life experiences and skill sets of poor students varied greatly. In other words, not all poor students were equally prepared to be students at Amherst, but the college seemed to think of them as homogeneous. That observation was borne out in the research, too. Poor students and minority students at more privileged institutions of higher education were thought of as having the same needs, skills and challenges. Jack knew that simply was not the case. Some students were much more comfortable navigating college, and privilege, than others. As Jack succinctly puts it, “Where are the other poor black kids?”

The Privileged Poor is no first-person study. It’s rigorously argued, recognizes the outsize role that elite institutions play in setting higher education’s priority and its expectations with the public, and is grounded in meticulous research. Central to the question of access, Jack learned, was the great importance of preparatory schools in readying poor students for college, and life, with the more privileged. These private schools are vitally important feeder for poorer students and, at least to me, a relatively unknown part of the education ecosystem.

Jack differentiates two types of poor students at elite institutions. The Privileged Poor have spent time at private high schools. They know about the rich and how they operate. On the other hand, the Doubly Disadvantaged are poor and do not know how to navigate the culture of privilege. They experience the shock of wealth and race when entering an elite college. The ways that these two kinds of students experience poverty and opportunity at a wealthy college vary. The issues are ones of class – but not the categories of poor and middle class. Instead, Jack is investigating social class and class consciousness. Elite institutions (and most institutions of higher education, I’d wager) are unaware of how this plays out in students’ college experiences.

The book is rich with student voice and their perspectives on the contradictions and tensions inherent in American higher education’s commitment to diversity. Class differences emerge in all manner of policies and practices, from study abroad to meal plans to internship opportunities. True and meaningful inclusion is an elusive goal.

The Privileged Poor also started me thinking about how class consciousness plays out at other institutions of higher education. In addition, Jack also has me wondering if we, in the community college worlds, are providing enough of the right sort of structures and supports for our transfer students. We devote a great deal of effort to helping students transfer into four-year institutions. Increasing numbers are being admitted into elite institutions. While we may have been strong with academic skills and content, I don’t believe that we have been anywhere near as attentive to readying these students in other areas for a successful transition.

College can be difficult enough for all students. We know that it is often significantly more difficult to poor and minority students. Access and generous financial aid alone, however, are note enough. The clear message is that the Doubly Disadvantaged students are just that: truly disadvantaged.

Jack makes several solid recommendations. They include more systematic investigation of students’ wealth and need of supports, especially those of transition into an elite institution. He wants us to think, as a society, about the role of private high schools. He reminds us that even at wealthy colleges, students can be hungry. At bottom, I think that he wants colleges and universities to listen to their students – to really listen – and then to take intentional action. That’s a worthwhile aim.

David Potash

One Comment

  1. It sounds like a book worth reading. As we study one aspect of a big problem a myriad of interconnected problems become apparent and need t be studied

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