Laura Pappano is an education journalist, writer-in-residence at Wellesley Centers for Women, and founder of the New Haven Student Journalism Project.
Their joyous YouTube videos go viral: poor kids getting accepted into Ivy League colleges. We see them crying, dancing, screaming, and we assume these young people have won “a golden ticket,” as sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack puts it.
But the reality for these high achievers is often something quite different. For a kid from a disadvantaged home or community, landing at an exclusive college can be dislocating, oppressive, even suffocating. In his book, “The Privileged Poor,” Jack reveals how top colleges often fail these heavily recruited students once they’re on campus.
The universities compete for low-income kids, students of color and first-generation students. “But then, once the students are there,” Jack writes, the colleges “maintain policies that not only remind those students of their disadvantage, but even serve to highlight it.”
In many respects, the institutions reflect the wealth inequality that spans the nation and demonstrate an inability to properly address it. The kids may be top students, but the culture of money and luxury brands that infests the campuses leaves them feeling like lower-class outcasts rather than full members of the community. “Money,” writes Jack, “remains a requirement for full citizenship in college, despite institutional declarations to the contrary.”
Jack conducted more than 250 hours of interviews over two years with 103 students at an elite college in the northeastern United States, which he does not identify but refers to as “Renowned University.” He bases his research on this one institution, he said, because “the conditions I have identified are common to selective colleges across the country.” He contends that his anonymous approach allowed him freer access to students and institutional research. His interviews turn up rich detail and troubling insights. What Jack discovered challenges us to think carefully about the campus lives of poor students and the responsibility elite institutions have for not only their education but also their social and economic mobility.
The students confront subtle and blatant eye-openers. Here are kids who have faced multiple evictions and homelessness mingling with the children of one-percenters who sport $895 Burberry raincoats and Longchamp bags, and who call in interior decorators to do a dorm room makeover when the existing decor doesn’t pass muster. “In another dorm across campus,” Jack writes, “a student offers one of her roommates $500 to let her have the single room of the two-room triple so that she does not have to share.”
Jack, who was once a Head Start kid in the distressed Miami community of Coconut Grove and is now an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, offers a key distinction in assessing the experiences of poor kids on elite campuses. Not all lower-income students are the same, he points out. Their different experiences preparing for college influence their success once they arrive. Jack distinguishes between what he calls the Privileged Poor, those who went to prep schools before college, and the Doubly Disadvantaged, those who have not.
“The Privileged Poor know a hybrid reality,” Jack writes. “They know the dangers of distressed communities and worry about the people they love who still call those places home. They also know the joys of burying their feet deep in foreign sands while studying a second language, and they know which fork to use when being served a multicourse dinner at the Biltmore or the home of an alumnus. But this new knowledge doesn’t replace the old; it sits alongside it.”
By contrast, Doubly Disadvantaged students have a steeper climb in college. “These students experience a huge jump . . . in everything from social expectations to cultural norms,” Jack explains. “In college, the people and customs are different. So are the rules that dominate social and academic life. The Doubly Disadvantaged come to see college not as a land of unbridled opportunity, but rather as one littered with new lessons of social and economic constraint and new reminders of the vast gulf between the world they came from and this new world that they don’t fully belong to.”
The interviews reveal the students’ heartbreaking vulnerability. One student eagerly accepts a cast-off velvet Ralph Lauren bathrobe from his wealthy roommate. For a moment, he considers that the rich kid’s private parts “were all over the thing but I was like, ‘It’s Ralph Lauren.’ I didn’t know Ralph Lauren was good, but I knew it was fancy. It felt hella good.”
The low-income students often can’t escape reminders of their inferior status. Because they need the money, the poor kids grab higher-paying student jobs cleaning dorm bathrooms. The students report “having to pick up soiled tampons and used condoms, mop sticky floors, sweep up dead cockroaches and rats, scoop vomit from sinks, and pull out hair stuck in clogged drains.”
But the experience profoundly highlights the gap between the haves and have-nots. One student who did dorm cleaning duties saw her experience through the eyes of the rich kids. “It’s like having a maid, a student maid!” she said. “The ones who don’t have to work can just chill and be here. I have to do this. . . . 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. To be like, ‘I have to clean your sh-- because I can’t afford to go to school.’ ”
“The Privileged Poor” breaks new ground on social and educational questions of great import. Jack believes that some progress has been made in improving the plight of lower-income students — but that much more needs to be done. For one, ensuring that students have access to enough food at all times of the year is essential. “All poor students, for example,” Jack writes, “must scrounge for food in a land of plenty when cafeterias are closed during spring break.”
By Anthony Abraham Jack
Harvard. 276 pp. $27.95