A neighbor whom I had as a student struggled to get through college but is finally doing so. She dropped out her first mid year of University of Washington as it was too hard and she did not have the foundation necessary to get the assistance needed to figure out how to do so. Her family are immigrants, they are primarily speakers of Vietnamese, she was a moderate student but dedicated and tested well. Testing and doing are very two different skill sets. Then the extra costs are overwhelming so she dropped out, worked and went to community college and then found her way back to the University of Washington and is studying Social Work. She wants to move into medicine and something tells me she will. There is much she can teach us.
What the Privileged Poor Can Teach Us
By ANTHONY ABRAHAM JACK
SEPT. 12, 2015
SELECTIVE colleges look nothing like they did 20 years ago. In the late 1990s, they began adopting no-loan policies to promote socioeconomic diversity. Princeton kicked things off in 1998. Amherst College followed in 1999 and has been a leader in creating diverse classes ever since. Spurred by a combination of blistering reports that documented the loss in human capital caused by financial barriers to college attendance and by politicians like Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who admonished colleges for not spending more of their endowments on access, 48 schools adopted similar policies in 2007 and 2008. Many people celebrated the opening of college doors to a broader array of students. I benefited myself from these new policies.
While elite colleges have taken strides in financially supporting students previously left outside their gates, they have thought less about what that inclusion means for academic life, or how colleges themselves might need to change to help the least advantaged continue on their road to success.
Colleges lag in readying themselves for increasingly diverse student bodies, in part because they habitually get their new diversity from old sources. My research shows that, on average, half of the lower-income black undergraduates at elite colleges today come from private high schools like Andover and Dalton. As early as middle school (and sometimes sooner), students participate in programs like Prep for Prep and A Better Chance. These programs remove lower-income students from typically distressed public schools and place them in predominantly white, resource-rich, affluent private schools. Elite colleges effectively hedge their bets: They recruit those already familiar with the social and cultural norms that pervade their own campuses.
As a sociologist, I study this new diversity at elite colleges. I call lower-income undergraduates who graduated from private high schools the privileged poor. Although they receive excellent educations, my research shows that their ability to navigate the informal social rules that govern elite college life is what really gives them advantages relative to their lower-income peers who did not attend elite high schools, those whom I call the doubly disadvantaged. Although also academically gifted and driven, they enter college with less exposure to the unsaid expectations of elite academic settings. They adjust, but acclimating to the social side of academic life takes time, potentially limiting their access to institutional resources and social networks. Naturally, this framework does not encompass every student, but it does help to explain why students from similarly disadvantaged backgrounds navigate the same college so differently.
Low-income black students who graduated from private high schools — the “privileged poor” — accounted for, on average, half of poor black students at an Eastern college over a seven-year period.
Confident and poised, Michelle sits down with me to discuss college life. (Michelle is not her real name; the terms of my research protocol require that I use pseudonyms throughout this article.) She describes her transition to college as nearly seamless. Her renowned university is filled with wealthy students. Her prep school was even richer. College life is often a sea of white faces. Her high school was even more so. As a sophomore, she admits that she is still getting used to having so many black, Latino and lower-income classmates. She feels at home in college: The people, culture and unwritten rules are similar to those of her high school.
This may seem an old story, one we could have told generations ago of rich, white students from rich, white families entering rich, white colleges. Yet Michelle is Latina, and her family endured bouts of homelessness before college. In fact, her freshman year at college was the longest span of time in years that she had stayed in one location.
The experiences of low-income undergraduates are not just a product of their family background and economic circumstances. This is a story I know well. I grew up supported by a security guard’s wages in a predominantly black Miami neighborhood in a single-parent household. For senior year, I switched from a public high school to a private one after growing tired of being treated like an athlete-student instead of the other way around. My new school, Gulliver Preparatory School, showed me how the 1 percent lived. But I learned much more, even in just that one year. I discovered that visiting faculty in their offices to talk things through wasn’t an imposition, but an expectation. I learned that I didn’t just need to make demands of myself, but that I could make demands of others. When I arrived at Amherst in 2003, getting to know professors in and out of the classroom was second nature.
Academic life is inherently social. Focusing solely on grades or graduation rates obscures that fact.
Imagine the culture shock that some lower-income students experience navigating this hidden curriculum. Alice, for example, attended a public high school where peers fought, set trash cans on fire, and skipped school while teachers exhausted themselves combating these problems. She doesn’t feel at home in college. When professors say that their door is open, she’s not sure that means she’s welcome. She admits to being “too intimidated or too afraid to go and talk to people” and consequently she “rarely” goes “to school-sponsored people for things.”
In contrast, Ogun, who comes from a troubled neighborhood but attended an affluent boarding school, reports feeling “empowered to go talk to a professor and say, ‘I want to meet with you.’ My school instilled in me that I’m allowed to do that and it’s actually my right.” In fact, when her instructor was away from campus, Ogun had no qualms calling his cellphone for virtual office hours despite her friends’ surprised looks and admonitions.
Reflecting on who is nominated for college awards, one school official I interviewed admitted, “students who counselors don’t know, they’re just not in the mix.” Being at ease with individuals in positions of authority, especially those who act as gatekeepers to resources, is often as important as the skills and knowledge students bring to the job market upon graduation.
Asking for help is not a sign of weakness. It is expected. It is rewarded. In a commencement address earlier this year, Michelle Obama told the graduating seniors of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School in Chicago pretty much the same thing. As she got to know her classmates at Princeton, she said, she “realized that they were all struggling with something, but instead of hiding their struggles and trying to deal with them all alone, they reached out.”
The differences I observe in my research highlight how unequal opportunities constrain disadvantaged groups before and during college. To close this gap, we must address the entrenched structural inequalities that plague America’s forgotten neighborhoods and neglected public schools. These changes are what Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at N.Y.U., calls “durable urban policies.” They will go a long way to help counter these systemic problems.
But these changes will take time, if they happen at all. In the interim, as colleges continue to diversify, they must investigate the practices they take for granted. One thing that works is voluntary preorientation programs that help students acclimate to college. You’re not going to teach students all the tricks of the trade that one picks up at Andover, but these programs do provide localized knowledge of the college and opportunities for breaking down social barriers between college officials and students through sustained contact.
Schools as different as Williams College and the University of North Carolina have smart programs that work to help freshmen adjust to college but also to integrate them into advising communities throughout their undergraduate years. I elected to do one at Amherst. Not only did the summer science program give me several lifelong friends who supported me when my family didn’t quite understand what I was going through, but it also gave me early access to a host of mentors whom I still call on today.
Professors, deans and support centers should find new ways to actively engage students, rather than reacting when students are already at their most distressed. If not, elite colleges will continue to privilege the privileged while neglecting those not fortunate enough to gain exposure to the advantages that money — whether it’s your own or your sponsor’s — can buy.