Book Review: "The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students"

This article is part of NASFAA's occasional book review series, where members share their reflections on books, published within the past five years, on higher education themes of interest to financial aid professionals. The opinions offered and statements made do not imply endorsement by NASFAA or the authors' employers and do not guarantee the accuracy of information presented. Would you like to suggest a book for a future review? Email us at [email protected] with your recommendation.

In a book titled "The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students," author Anthony Abraham Jack examines how socioeconomic inequities impact students' college experiences both inside and outside the classroom. "The Privileged Poor" can be "a helpful resource as we examine policies on our campus and communicate with colleagues, lawmakers, and regulators about broader policy matters," writes David Sheridan, who read the book and shared his opinions of its content with NASFAA. "It's great to be armed with data and create generous packaging formulas, but to be advocates for the students who need our help the most, we need to better understand the path they took to get to our campuses and what they face once they're here." What follows are his takeaways, thoughts, and reflections.

David SheridanReviewed by David Sheridan, Director of Financial Aid at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs

In financial aid, we like to think of our work as the great equalizer, that what we do levels the playing field and gives all students the opportunity to achieve great things by making college affordable. And while many students owe a lot to good financial aid packages, getting squared away with the Bursar's Office isn't the only way money contributes toward college success. In his book "The Privileged Poor," Harvard Professor Anthony Abraham Jack examines how socioeconomic inequities impact students' college experiences both inside and outside the classroom.

Jack's study involves students at the pseudonymously named "Renowned University." He divides students of color (Black and Latinx) into three groups: the "Privileged Poor," (PP) who are low-income students who get scholarships to attend private high schools; "Doubly Disadvantaged," (DD) who are low-income students who attended underfunded public schools; and "Upper Income," which describes all others. Through detailed and candid interviews, he encourages students to share the paths they took to get to such a selective college, but especially focusing on the experience of being surrounded by classmates whose privilege provides them with not only conspicuous signs of wealth, but also a cultural capital that gives them a leg up on poor and first-generation students in almost every aspect of navigating campus life. 

The author also offers interesting contrasts of his two low-income groups — his "PP" and "DD" students — showing how those who had the experience of a private high school and the earlier exposure to more privileged classmates have advantages over those who, although going through life with all of the same trappings of poverty, lagged behind because they lacked familiarity with what Jack calls "elite spaces."

Some of these disparities lack any subtlety. In need of a paycheck, some low-income students take summer jobs scrubbing restrooms, literally cleaning up after their peers. Campus events are arranged with a conspicuously labeled entry line for financial aid recipients given free passes, separate from the queue for those who purchased tickets. Affluent students in designer clothes talk about breaks spent at family vacation homes, while low-income students who can't afford to take a Greyhound bus home stay on campus, where administrators — assuming all students leave that week — close down dining halls.

But other, more nuanced cultural capital differences include low-income students not knowing the purpose of professors' office hours. Or, while their wealthier, better connected classmates arrive on campus and immediately start building the networks that will lead to positions of leadership, prime internships, and letters of recommendation to Wall Street or law school, low-income students — especially Jack's "DD" group — have been taught that it's wrong to "kiss up" and that the only honorable accomplishments are based purely on hard work.

Our profession can be proud when the author cites financial aid as "bringing the rich and poor together in ways that are happening nowhere else in this country," but access is not the same thing as inclusion.  As Jack points out, "money is mandatory for full citizenship" at such schools.

"The Privileged Poor" (published pre-COVID, and one can imagine how these gaps have widened since) lacks any comparison between different schools — or perhaps more usefully, different types of schools — and one can get frustrated by seeing a selective, private institution repeatedly held up as the representative example of American higher education. I also found myself wondering why the author didn't expand his study to compare the experiences of Black and Latinx low-income students to those who are Asian, Native American, or white. But we would do our neediest students a disservice were we to defensively say, "Well, we're obviously not Harvard, it's different here."

I've been trying to learn more about what anti-racist policy means in a financial aid setting. "The Privileged Poor" can be a helpful resource as we examine policies on our campus and communicate with colleagues, lawmakers, and regulators about broader policy matters. It's great to be armed with data and create generous packaging formulas, but to be advocates for the students who need our help the most, we need to better understand the path they took to get to our campuses and what they face once they're here. And we need to be willing to examine the assumptions we make when we create policies intended to help them. 

"The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students" by Anthony Abraham Jack, Harvard University Press, 2019, pp. 288.

*****

David Sheridan is the director of financial aid at Columbia University's School of International Public Affairs. Throughout the course of his career, he has worked with both undergraduate and graduate students and in both the private and public sections. He has served as a member of NASFAA's Higher Education Committee of 50, chair of NASFAA's Federal Issues Committee, chair of NASFAA's Graduate and Professional Loan Limits Task Force, NJASFAA President, NJASFAA Chair Federal Relations, EASFAA Training Chair, EASFAA Federal Relations Chair, EASFAA Conference Chair, and EASFAA Conference Chair. Most recently, David was the 2020 recipient of the Allan W. Purdy Distinguished Service Award, one of the highest awards that NASFAA bestows and may be awarded either for significant contributions in the furtherance of NASFAA's goals over a sustained period of time, or for a single contribution of such momentous importance as to deserve the award.

 

Publication Date: 6/3/2021


Ruth C | 6/3/2021 9:43:48 AM

Thanks for this review, Dave. I'll definitely check out this book! I have been confounded by this topic for years and will be interested to get Mr. Jack's perspective.

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