“This is my college tour,” Dr. Anthony Jack told the packed Alice Millar Chapel on Wednesday night, opening his lecture and Q&A on the experience of disadvantaged students at elite institutions, the seventh of the Loeschner Lecture series.
As a first-generation, low-income college student himself, Jack stepped onto a plane for the first time when he flew from his hometown of Miami to Amherst College for his university recruitment tour. His time at Amherst, along with the experiences of other first-generation and low-income students across America, led his research on how elite colleges can better serve their disadvantaged students.
Today, Jack is a Junior Fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is most well known for his groundbreaking first book The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Poor Students.
Although universities like Princeton and Harvard have pioneered the expansion of financial aid programs in the past twenty years, Jack argued it hasn’t been enough. According to Jack, offering admission and a substantial financial aid package does not automatically ensure a diverse college community.
As a student, Jack struggled to stay afloat working four jobs. “Rest was a luxury I thought I couldn’t afford,” Jack said. And in April, as his classmates jetted off to resorts in the Caribbean and houses in the Hamptons, Jack worried about where he would find his next meal; Amherst closes its dining halls over spring break.
Combining his own experience with the testimony of 103 undergraduates at elite institutions, along with his observations from two years of studying campus life, Jack found that the underprivileged undergraduate experience had more depth and diversity than many sociologists previously thought. Established sociologists “wrote of a single experience,” Jack explained, but he saw two types of underprivileged students struggling: the “privileged poor," who grew up in low-income neighborhoods but attended boarding or preparatory schools, and the “doubly disadvantaged," who grew up in the same communities, but attended the often underfunded, neglected public schools in their neighborhood.
“There is a hidden curriculum on college campuses,” Jack said. Recounting stories of students who went to public high schools with disengaged or overwhelmed teachers, Jack concluded that those students, arriving on campus without the cultural capital to engage with faculty and administrators, are “seen as disinterested” and miss out on opportunities like letters of recommendation and internships. Even certain college customs can shut out students who had not encountered those resources before.
“Let’s define office hours,” said Jack. “Why do we always say when they are but never what they are?”
During the Q&A, audience members praised Jack’s book for highlighting their own experiences, and asked about the next steps in pursuing equitable education.
“It is not the students’ job to empower themselves,” Jack said emphatically. “Access and inclusion are two separate institutional mandates.”
Despite his acknowledging that it is institutions that should be initiating the change, Jack concluded his lecture with a passionate call to action for the Northwestern community.
“Your college is your home,” Jack said. “Dare to demand as much of Northwestern as it demands of you.”