Within academia, not all poor people are created equal. That, in a sentence, is the theme of Anthony Abraham Jack’s engaging short book The Privileged Poor. Jack argues that lower-income students, like “students of color,” in elite American universities are often analyzed as though they were a unitary, cohesive block—but that doing so ignores high levels of diversity within these groups. Specifically, Jack contends that poor students in top colleges fall into two distinct groups. There are the Doubly Disadvantaged (DD), who attended struggling high schools in their disadvantaged big-city neighborhoods or rural towns before matriculating to Harvard or Michigan. And there are the Privileged Poor (PP), who received “upward mobility” scholarships to select boarding or day schools prior to college.
Jack points out that the PP are a sizable group; remarkably, 50 percent of lower-income minority students who attend “highly selective” U.S. universities graduated from selective prep schools. He argues convincingly that these students do better in college than “DD” students. In contrast to the DD, the PP tend not to be “fazed by the campus culture or their wealthier peers.” After two to four years of socialization in elite prep schools, they usually feel academically and socially prepared for university. Talking with Jack, many describe their freshman year at the institution he labels “Renowned University” (Yale?) as “fifth year” or a predictable “next step.”
That said, life as a member of the Privileged Poor is not always a walk in the park. The shock of an unwelcome call from home—about, for example, a relative’s falling victim to gang violence—certainly can serve as an unwelcome reminder of the real world outside the ivory tower. However, such calls do not occur on most days. For most members of the PP, culture shock occurred in high school, so college seems essentially familiar. After making this argument, Jack discusses collegiate living conditions for poor students and makes a number of suggestions—leaving public cafeterias open during holidays, providing non-humiliating work-study jobs for students, having faculty explain the purpose and importance of office hours—that would make college life easier for both DD and PP students.
While its primary focus is one argument about the performance of different student cohorts, Jack’s book is notable in that, skillfully and almost in passing, it engages with many of the noteworthy and underreported realities of contemporary academic life. First, he points out that elite colleges are remarkably segregated in income terms, and that the representation of the rich within them seems to be increasing. He notes that a mere 14 percent of undergraduates in the top tier of colleges come from the bottom half of the USA’s economic distribution, while 63 percent come from the nation’s top quartile. Near the true top of the economic pyramid, wealth disparities in college attendance become still more pronounced. Children of the 1 percent are 77 times more likely to “go Ivy” than are students from working-class families making $30,000 per year. At a typical elite school such as Amherst College, Jack notes, almost all students of all races are rich.
Refreshingly, as an African-American author (and I speak as one myself), Jack openly admits that social class is a much greater predictor of success and comfort in this environment than is race (or region, religion, etc.). “The wealthier you are,” he writes bluntly, “the more likely you are to feel you belong at an elite college.” Well-to-do students of all races who agreed to be interviewed seemed to feel that Renowned University was “made for people like them.” Many opined that the place “feels like home.” Indeed, the primary advantage Jack’s Privileged Poor possess is pre-college acclimation to elite environments. Affluent and even PP black students, when asked what they found unfamiliar or unsettling about social life at Renowned, often struggled to “understand the premise of the question.” DD students of all colors found it all too easy to answer.
Although he does not engage these questions at length, Jack’s book also raises concerns about the utility of ongoing race-based affirmative action. These questions exist on several levels. On the one hand, if almost all undergraduates at Research 1 universities are upper-middle-class or plain rich, what sense does it make to privilege the sons of black dentists over those of white dentists (or Asian bus drivers) entirely on the basis of race? What empirically measurable hardships are students in the first group overcoming?
On the other hand—and this is a tougher one—people of good will must also ask whether it makes sense to admit unprepared students into educational environments where they are very likely not to succeed. While Jack focuses on lack of social capital as the reason for the struggles of students in his DD cohort—and this doubtless plays some role—a simpler explanation might be found in their test scores. Documents released in connection with a recent lawsuit brought against Harvard University (where Jack teaches) by Asian-American students indicate that the university begins intense recruitment of black, Hispanic, and Native American students if they posted any one SAT score higher than 1100. In contrast, whites needed a 1310 to be recruited, and Asian men a 1380. As a result of policies like these, the SAT test-score gap between white and Asian students and non-Asian minority students at top colleges has been roughly 300 points for the past decade. The question arises: Does it make any sense to pull varsity athletes with 1120 SAT scores away from Howard University or Southern Illinois’s honors program in order to let them make Yale look more diverse while ensuring they bring up the rear of the academic pack there?
At least in touching on questions like these, Jack’s book also helps illuminate a relationship I had never previously thought of in any depth: the link between affirmative admissions of all varieties and campus “social justice” activism. In case after case, intentionally or not, Jack illustrates the connection between DD students’ feeling unprepared to compete and their coming to see college life as a series of “microaggressions.”
A student Jacks calls Jose explicitly describes himself as coming to seek refuge from a challenging class schedule and unfamiliar environment among other students of color: “In a class with more people of color, that I can relate to…I feel comfortable.” Another student, who later adjusted to Renowned, described her only period of isolation as having occurred not due to racial factors but rather when she felt she “wasn’t as bright as everyone else.”
In several moving passages, Jack even describes the criticism of high-performing or culturally acclimated minority students by other people of color who felt more out of place at Renowned, with an angry “Alice” at one point telling “Patrice:” “You’re Latina, but you’re elite. Look at the way you dress and speak…shut up.”
To some extent, such behavior is not particularly surprising. When people who are themselves quite competitive and intelligent are placed in one of the very few environments where they are unlikely to succeed academically or socially, it makes sense that they might begin looking for other ways to stand out. If one of those happens to be using a “unique minority perspective” to constantly bash Old Siwash as racist and sexist, then so be it.
Interestingly, if affirmative action is to continue, an expansion of the “Privileged Poor” model would almost certainly be the fairest way to move it forward. Rather than simply admitting academically and socially unprepared students and essentially watching them fail, the massively endowed universities and other NGOs could fund scholarships to prep schools, charter academies, science camps, and the like for poor and minority students. These students would then have years to acclimate themselves to upper-middle-class American culture, while bringing their test scores up to par with those for other applicants. Harvard alone could fund 50,000 different $20,000 scholarships to solid prep schools annually, using only the interest on its $39.2 billion endowment and collection of investments.
I myself am inclined to propose an even more radical solution for America’s colleges and universities: Just let in the applicants with the best test scores and grades. Interestingly, this policy—especially if a 50- to 100-point boost were given to the scores of students from truly disadvantaged areas—would dramatically increase the racial, and especially economic, diversity of the campus. Almost overnight, tens of thousands more Asian Americans, Eastern European immigrants, Nigerians and West Indians, and Midwestern poor whites would be able to attend Ivy League and Big Ten institutions. Ironically, the thing most likely to end the cloistered rich-guy culture of elite colleges might be the complete abandonment of today’s needlessly clunky legacies-plus-affirmative-action admissions systems.
Jack’s book is well written, concise, and an interesting summary of an underreported trend in higher education. It also touches tangentially on many questions about what to do with American higher ed, some of which the author himself may not even have intended to bring up, but all of which are well worth exploring.