Courtesy of Cornell University

Harvard University Prof. Anthony Jack, education, introduced his research to the audience with the following three words: “Access ain’t inclusion.”

October 6, 2019

Harvard Prof: Elite Universities Need to Do More for Low-Income Students

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To a fully-packed room in which audience members filled every seat, sat on the ground in rows and stood in lines in the back, Harvard University Prof. Anthony Jack, education, introduced his research to the audience with the following three words: “Access ain’t inclusion.”

Thursday, Oct. 3 marked the first stop of Jack’s book tour, which he kicked off at Cornell. His book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students, published March 2019, explores access and inclusion for lower income students at elite universities. In his lecture, Jack relayed his personal story, his research, and advice for low-income students navigating Cornell.

Coming from a low-income background himself, Jack completed his undergraduate education at Amherst College, where he studied Women’s and Gender Studies and Religion, and his Ph.D. from Harvard University. His education at these elite universities, Jack stated, was proof that “even undreamt dreams come true. And I’m talking about those generational dreams that my grandparents and mother could not always put into words, but that they held onto in their hearts.”

However, Jack realized that once he was at those elite schools, he had to fend for himself: Although he had the support from his mother and grandparents, he found that there was a lack of resources and support for the transition from a low income background to a top-tier university.

Jack highlighted how 38 colleges in the U.S. have more students from the top 1% than the bottom 60, and that just 14% of undergraduates at the most competitive colleges come from the lower half of the income distribution.

“This disparity in destination is especially troubling given that selective colleges, places like Amherst and Harvard, Michigan and Cornell, serve as mobility springboards for those from disadvantaged families, compared to lower-tier schools,” Jack said.

Jack’s research focused on interviewing 103 black, white and Latinx students while observing their campus lives over the course of two years. He aimed to answer the question: “What does it mean to be a poor person on a rich campus?”

Through these interviews, Jack was able to separate lower-income students into two groups: the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantaged. Jack defined the privileged poor as students who come from poor communities, but attend boarding, day and preparatory high schools before going on to elite universities, while the doubly disadvantaged are students from low-income areas who continue to study at local, often distressed public schools.

Jack argued that while elite universities are moving towards admitting more students from low-income backgrounds, universities still fail to bridge the gap between these students’ hometowns and an elite university for the doubly disadvantaged.

According to Jack, these students experience a culture shock because of their lack of exposure to the culture of an elite school. Through his research he asked the questions, “Which students immerse themselves into the college community? Who wants to leave after the first week? Who gets those strong letters of recommendation? And who says, ‘I couldn’t breathe here’?”

Navigating personal relationships was not the only problem the doubly disadvantaged faced, according to Jack — universities also fail to support these students through food insecurity and lack of familial support, as well as not accounting for students who need to stay on campus over breaks or do not have visitors on parents’ weekends.

Jack ended the lecture with a direct message to the students in the audience.

“Your college is your home. You are its citizenry,” he said. “Do not let the college receive donations in the name of diversity but spend those monies fortifying places where first-gen and lower-income students are not even allowed into.”

Jack’s advice to the students of Cornell can be summarized in one of his final statements: “Dare to demand as much of Cornell as Cornell demands of you.”