“The Privileged Poor”

I just finished reading this brilliant study by Harvard-based sociologist Anthony A. Jack, and I cannot recommend it enough.

In this work, Jack analyzes different segments of population attending an unnamed élite college (which he identifies by the pseudonym Renowned U). He contrasts three different groups: African Americans and Latino students who come from an upper-middle class socio-economic background ; students from a socio-economic underprivileged background, who came to Renowned U after attending underfunded public schools (a group which he calls the “Doubly Disadvantaged“); and students from a similarly socio-economic underprivileged background who attended preparatory public schools thanks to scholarship programs prior to entering college (a group which the author calls the “Privileged Poor“). It is worth noting that, while the first control group includes exclusively African-American and Latino students, both the Doubly Disadvantaged and the Privileged Poor cohorts include also white students from economic disadvantaged communities.

The Privileged Poor contains three arguments in one. The first is that access is not the same as inclusion. Specifically, Jack analyzes several ways in which institutional policies (including some whose stated goal is to further economic access) can reinforce the same class and race hierarchies that pre-existed the college experience. An oft-talked about example of this include Community Detail, a work-study program mostly staffed by students of financial aid which consists of providing cleaning services for other (generally wealthier) peers in the school’s dormitories. Another example the food insecurity that befalls the poorest students when dining halls are closed for Spring Break.

The second argument is that lack of inclusion is not just rooted in economic disparities (although these are very much a factor), but also in a lack of socialization. This leads to an inability to master the unwritten rules of academia often; students were never socialized in the implicit script of the upper middle classes, for whom college is an implied rite of passage. As a consequence, students who can handle the academic material find themselves saddled with impostor syndrome or feelings of alienation (not belonging, not fitting in). The relationship with the family of origins can add a further layer of complexity; some students are torn between conflicting loyalties to their families and communities of origin and their new academic home; they can be viewed with suspicion by their parents and siblings, or seen as “traitors” for having left their precarious childhood homes.

The third piece of the argument (and the truly groundbreaking contribution of this book) is that underprivileged students are not a uniform group, but can be articulated in a variety of different experiences. Jack clearly demonstrates this by comparing the experiences of “Privileged Poor” (PP) and “Double Disadvantaged” (DD) students. Both groups face obstacles in their higher education journey: for instance, the closure of dining halls during Spring Break harms both groups. Additionally, both groups are often facing added pressures and stressors coming from home–financial crises, health struggles in their families of origin affect both these cohorts. However, the socialization aspect is radically differs. The DD population relies less frequently on support systems such as tutoring, office hours, or academic support centers; they are not accustomed to advocate for themselves, often regarding such practices as “brown-nosing” or “cheating”. Conversely, the PP population has already been exposed to such experiences; they have learned how to advocate for themselves and take advantage of those resources that are there to support them personally and academically.

The Privileged Poor is a book that will absolutely resonate with anyone of us who has been a first-generation student from a family that valued education, or who has been exposed (via school, community, or other programs) to opportunities that exceed their own family economic access opportunity.

The Privileged Poor is particularly refreshing in its welcome attempt to further our understanding of how class socialization works in academia. At the same time, it does not shy away from its intersection with other identity markers that are now more popularly analyzed, such as race and gender. By focusing on the experiences of first-generation, working class minority students, the book also helps counter toxic depictions of the working class as exclusively white, male, over-50 and staunchly conservative, a narrative which has come to the forefront of the political discourse since 2016 (more on this in a future post).

Finally, Jack writes with a compelling style that combines analytical rigor with the freshness of lived experience–both the ones collected in his interviews, and the memoir-like excerpts where the author references his own experience as a first-generation Floridian transplant at Amherst College. In this respect, it’s a great example of scholarship that is as well-written and accessible to readers as thoroughly documented and researched.

In short, this is a book that should be required reading for anyone who teaches, researches or advises in higher education — especially for those of us who work at élite institution.

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