When Anthony Jack started inviting students on scholarships out for dinner during their spring break at one of the most elite universities in the US north-east, he wondered whether they were being polite but did not enjoy the food. They often ate slowly and asked for at least half of their meal to be wrapped up to take away.
In fact, many were going hungry, surviving on a meagre income and trapped on campus while the cafeteria was closed during holidays, unable to travel to — or unwelcome at — home. They turned one meal into two and bought cheap bread, cheese and peanut butter in bulk. Some women used the dating app Tinder just so their dates would pay for meals out.
These were among the strategies that Jack (no relation), an academic now based at Harvard University, describes in his book. It’s a sobering reminder that, despite considerable efforts in recent years to increase the intake of talented young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds into leading universities and colleges, much more needs to be done to prepare and support them during their studies if they are to thrive.
Jack recalls his own shock in moving from his low-income family home, in a segregated neighbourhood in Miami, via the “gateway” of a preparatory school to Amherst College. He describes parents too embarrassed to enter the fancy homes where they drop off their scholarship children for receptions, while the kids themselves often feel closer to the serving staff than their new, rich classmates.
“Being enrolled at Renowned is a very different thing from feeling you belong at Renowned,” he writes of the anonymised institution where he conducted two years of fieldwork with 100 students, now distilled into this book. “Daily life is shaped by the wealth of its students.”
Jack stresses neglected distinctions among scholarship students: between the “doubly disadvantaged” propelled directly from tough backgrounds into elite universities, and the “privileged poor” like him who had time to acclimatise via special programmes in elite high schools first. He highlights nuances by class as well as race, and neglect of the white, rural poor.
Jack argues that the privileged poor have been neglected by sociologists, although his conclusions are not surprising: they tend to adapt better than those without pre-university acclimatisation. By contrast, he provides more poignant insights into the lives of the doubly disadvantaged.
This group lacks both the cash and the cultural capital he sees as vital to fully benefit from university. They are suspicious of “brown-nosing” authority figures and veer away from contact with professors, missing out on essential networking and references. While richer classmates head off on costly enrichment activities, they are often forced to stay on campus to earn extra money in “dorm crews” cleaning their peers’ rooms, a divisive and humiliating experience that cuts costs for colleges.
Some of Jack’s most intriguing and depressing insights, though, concern the group he focuses on least: the upper-income students. Some appear shockingly selfish, with extravagant lifestyles that include trips on private jets, renting luxury venues for parties, and redecorating their dorm rooms.
In behaviours which surely also require deeper and more nuanced categorisation between and among the ultra-wealthy and the middle class, we read about peer pressure to buy and quickly discard expensive clothing brands and a casualness about spurning the canteen to seek out “cheap” $30 lobster deals at restaurants off-campus instead.
The book contains a number of suggestions: training to sensitise these better-off students; efforts by faculty to actively engage with poorer students; and mental health support. He advocates for college food during holidays and removing stigmatising measures such as separate lines for free tickets in programmes offering extracurricular concerts for scholarship students.
Understanding what happens to these different groups if or after they graduate demands more attention, as does preparing them for higher education. And more focus should be directed to enhancing community colleges rather than elite institutions. But Jack provides important insights into challenges of equal access that are far from solved.
The reviewer is FT global education editor
The Privileged Poor, by Anthony Abraham Jack, Harvard University Press, $27.95