The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Forget rich parents trying to get their kids into college. Focus on students from low-income families.

(Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)

Parents using great wealth to get their kids into selective colleges is bad. But in a country this rich, such misbehavior is unlikely to stop. So how about working on a more important and soluble problem: the clumsy way we treat not the richest but the poorest students admitted to such schools.

That is the goal of Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who grew up poor in Miami and has written a most surprising and original book on undergraduate life. In “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students,” he reveals that students from low-income families in prestigious colleges are not one group but two, something many university administrators don’t seem to understand.

As an undergraduate at Amherst College, Jack was part of what he calls the Privileged Poor, who constitute a bit more than half of impoverished students in selective colleges. They come as he did from low-income families but with luck and scholarships attended private high schools. There, they were prepared for the middle-class peculiarities of college life and learning.

The other group, whom he calls the Doubly Disadvantaged, do not get that kind of help. Their public high schools have too many other problems to deal with. Unlike private schools, few of their students go on to prestigious universities.

While earning his doctorate at Harvard, Jack was regularly told that all impoverished students in college are pretty much the same. That was not what he saw at Amherst. When he began to research the matter, he found that where they went to high school was at least as important as how much money their parents had.

He gives startling examples of difficulties for students who had scholarships but little preparation for campus life. His research was at an exclusive college he calls Renowned. Most depressing to me was what he learned about something seemingly trivial: professors’ office hours.

The teachers and counselors at Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami, which Jack attended his high school senior year, encouraged students to seek faculty help with academic troubles. As private school educators do routinely, they explained that students would have to use office hours in college to get that kind of assistance and build important relationships.

Students from regular high schools often had no clue, Jack said. Some thought office hours were when professors did not want to be bothered. Others felt soliciting faculty was spineless. One student’s father told her: “You don’t want to get where you are based on kissing ass, right? You want it based on hard work.”

Jack exposed other Ivy-covered blind spots. Many students couldn’t afford to go home on spring break. So how were they to eat with the cafeteria closed? Some resorted to measures they learned from bad times at home, like visiting food banks. At least one stole food from the campus cafeteria.

Their college provided free tickets to cultural events but didn’t consider the embarrassment of having to collect them via a separate line. The administration thought it helpful to give them jobs cleaning dorm toilets, but the work left the message that they weren’t to be treated like the rich kids.

Such experiences can be irritating, disabling or inspiring. I had a friend in college on full scholarship. Her parents were blue-collar. She had attended a regular high school. She was irked when a dean remarked that she had “come so far.” Like many such students, she vowed to prove herself. She became our student newspaper’s first female managing editor and was profiled in Life magazine.

On graduation day, I married her. “You didn’t seem bothered much being the poor kid. Why?” I asked her while I was reading Jack’s book. “Pure arrogance,” she said.

A better term would be self-confidence. Jack had that, too. He suggests many ways colleges could nurture it. Why not have college advisers explain the mystery of office hours to new students instead of just saying when they are?

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