Tony Jack '07 Speaks About Low-Income Student Experience

On March 21, Harvard Professor of Education Anthony “Tony” Jack ’07 spoke to a crowded audience in Lipton Lecture Hall on the effects of income inequality, racism and classism on students of low-income backgrounds chronicled in his new book “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students.” The talk brought an interesting parallel to the recent college admission scandal, where privilege and money are used to an unjust advantage, which further class inequalities. Jack’s research concentrates on the experiences of 103 black, Latinx and white students at the pseudonymous Renowned University, which Jack describes as “an elite school with a multi-billion dollar endowment in the Northeast.” Specifically, he identifies two groups of students at these elite colleges: “the privileged poor,” who are low-income students that attended private, boarding and day high schools, and the “doubly disadvantaged,” low-income students who attended traditional public high schools that tend to be overcrowded and underfunded.

As a member of the privileged poor, Jack began his talk describing his own experiences entering Amherst as a first-year student. One of the first questions he remembered asking himself was, “Where are all the other poor black people?” According to the common data set provided by the college, at the time of Jack’s admission in 2003, African-Americans made up about 10 percent of the student body. Nonetheless, Jack described feelings of hopefulness during his time at Amherst.

“I could not escape the fact that my entering [Charles] Pratt Dormitory in 2003 and my standing here today as Harvard professor is a testament to the fact that even undreamt dreams come true,” he said. “I’m talking about those generational dreams that my grandparents couldn’t put into words but hailed in their hearts.”

According to Jack, despite many colleges placing a higher emphasis on diversity and inclusion, higher education is still “depressingly stratified.” Jack quoted that 38 colleges have more students in the top one percent income distribution than the bottom 60 percent. Amherst, which adopted a non-loan policy in 2007, meets the full demonstrated need of every admitted student. Yet, Jack argued that generous financial aid and admission into a university do not prevent students’ feelings of exclusion due to class differences.

Jack used the notion of dominant cultural capital, which describes certain unsaid ways of being that are valued in a particular setting, to explain why many universities expect students to take initiative to attain opportunities. To understand how colleges can perpetuate the differences between students, Jack used the example of two teenagers with similar economic backgrounds but two very different high-school experiences: Ogun, a member of the privileged poor, and Alice, a member of the doubly disadvantaged. He explains how Ogun, having come from an elite boarding school, knew how to take advantage of the opportunities that come with higher education, such as reaching out to professors that may lead to important connections. Students like Ogun, having navigated elite institutions prior to college, knew these assets were her right. Alice on the other hand, came from a local high school, where she learned that the way to survive and do well was to keep to herself and not cause commotion. For Alice, reaching out to faculty members was not something she had practice doing.

Jack emphasized that in order to bridge this gap of inequality, all members of an institution must make a conscious effort towards diversity and inclusion. Being more clear on the definition of office hours is a step in the right direction for David A. Cox, professor of mathematics and Jack’s former instructor. “I try to give a little invitation to office hours … but Tony made it clear that this invitation is not enough,” Cox said. “In a sense, if you give students ‘buckets’ to put their ideas under [by clarifying that office hours can imply talking about internships, fellowships, how to study, etc.], that can help them realize that they have this kind of question and that it’s perfectly legal to come to office hours.”

Although the student body is diverse, one common factor to overcoming exclusion is through acceptance. Mike Santos ’22, who attended the talk, said that “placing an emphasis on people’s backgrounds alienates people more and this becomes their identity whenever they’re conversing with someone or interacting with someone out of their very specific class or race.”

Nathaniel Ashley ’22 said that the student body’s recognition of privilege is key to the inclusion of first generation, low-income students. “The student body can be more aware of the class privilege they have — when people say, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I’m paying $70k a year for this,’ realize that for some of the people in the room that might be twice what their parent makes in a year,” Ashley said.

Jack ended his talk with some final words and a quote from the poem “Dreams.” “As we approach our 200th birthday, go back to the lessons that Langston [Hughes] taught us oh so long ago when he implored us to:

Hold fast to dreams For if dreams die Life is a broken-winged bird That cannot fly. Hold fast to dreams For when dreams go Life is a barren field Frozen with snow.

So please be unapologetic, be bold, be you.”