To understand the prevalence of wealth at top-tier schools, and how those schools often fail to adequately serve low-income students, it helps to turn to a book called The Privileged Poor, by the Harvard University professor Anthony Abraham Jack, published earlier this month. In the book, Jack combines his own journey as a low-income student from Miami who attended selective schools (Amherst College as an undergrad and Harvard for graduate school) and his two-year ethnographic research project, in which he interviewed and followed the lives of low-income students as they navigated life at an unidentified elite school he refers to as “Renowned University.”
In the early pages of the book, Jack outlines how top colleges and universities are and have long been havens of the wealthy. In 2017, a team led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that students coming from families in the top 1 percent—those who make more than $630,000 a year—are 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than students coming from families who make less than $30,000 a year. Furthermore, the study found that 38 elite colleges have more students who come from families in the top 1 percent than students who come from the bottom 60 percent (families making less than $65,000 a year). In other research, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, have documented how just 14 percent of undergraduates at the most competitive schools—places like Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia—come from families who make up the bottom half of U.S. income distribution.
While many top schools have taken steps to provide more access to disadvantaged students and become more socioeconomically diverse, they remain saturated with wealth. Most low-income students still receive their education elsewhere, disproportionately attending for-profit colleges, community colleges, and less-selective four-year institutions.
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The low-income students who do end up at these elite institutions are often treated as homogeneous in both policy and the scholarly literature, as if they all navigate these schools in the same way. This is one of the most important contributions Jack has made with his research—disaggregating the experience of low-income students at elite colleges.
Jack describes two categories: the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantaged. The privileged poor are students who come from low-income backgrounds but attended wealthy private high schools, giving them a level of familiarity with and access to the social and cultural capital that tend to make people successful at elite universities. The doubly disadvantaged are students who arrive at these top institutions from neighborhood public schools, many of which are overcrowded and underfunded. They are schools where these students have excelled, but that are ill-equipped to give them the sociocultural tools necessary to understand the nuances of how these elite colleges operate. For example, without being explicitly told, how would students know what “office hours” are, and that they are encouraged to use them? Many low-income students attending these universities are unfamiliar with what Jack refers to as “the hidden curriculum,” those invisible rules and expectations that can lead some students to success while leaving others floundering. The book is full of examples like this, the sort of social capital that many students, faculty, and administrators take for granted.