47 pages 1 hour read

Anthony Abraham Jack

The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Anthony Abraham Jack’s 2019 nonfiction book The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students is based on sociological research the author conducted between 2013 and 2016 on the campus of an unnamed elite Northeastern university. There, he observed events on campus while also conducting interviews with 76 undergraduates from underprivileged backgrounds and 27 Black students from middle-class or upper-income families in order to find out how social class impacts students’ adjustment to college and to determine ways colleges make students feel part of, or separate from, the community. The book was named one of NPR Books’ best books of 2019.

This guide uses the hardcover first edition.

Plot Summary

In the Introduction, Jack recounts his own journey from a rough neighborhood in Miami, to a private high school, to Amherst College. There, he experienced the shock of seeing and hearing people with far more money than he had talking about luxury trips. After he became a sociology graduate student years later, he would come to describe himself as a Privileged Poor student. The Privileged Poor are students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds but spend time at elite high schools before entering college. These are contrasted with the Doubly Disadvantaged, who go from disadvantaged backgrounds straight into college. The book focuses on students at Renowned, a pseudonym for an elite university on the East Coast. Jack’s goal is to draw attention to the diverse experiences of students of lower socio-economic backgrounds, especially those of the Privileged Poor. This group has been too often overlooked by colleges, which tend to make no distinctions between types of low-income students.

Chapter 1 opens with Jack overhearing a white girl at Renowned invite her friend to Italy after discovering the friend has never tried espresso. This type of wealth is often flaunted at Renowned; this makes it hard for all students to feel part of the college community. Renowned is also full of status symbols such as trendy clothing brands that make all disadvantaged students feel separate from the rest of campus. Students often experience culture shock upon entering college, with poor students especially being forced to adapt to the dominant culture of wealth. But for the Privileged Poor, Renowned is just a continuation of high school. They enter school already knowing the mores of the rich, having experienced the culture shock years before. College administration decisions to lump all poor students into the same category exacerbate feelings of non-belonging. Colleges ought to do a better job of making all students understand each other.

In Chapter 2, Jack watches the ease with which a privileged student asks a professor to autograph a book. This highlights another difference between the Doubly Disadvantaged students and their peers who attended elite high schools: the Doubly Disadvantaged enter Renowned without knowing how to interact with professors or even that they are supposed to do so. Even common terms such as “office hours” confuse them. Students who went to more rigorous high schools are comfortable talking to adults and asking for help, so they can use all the resources Renowned offers. While other students strategize on how best to network, Doubly Disadvantaged students typically spend years avoiding adults because they believe they should be judged by their work, not their relationships. This costs them in the end. Jack notes that mental health is a struggle for all students too, but Doubly Disadvantaged students struggle to seek out counseling. To fix these problems, colleges should define what exactly is expected of all students at the beginning of freshman year and should make sure not to assume that all students will ask for help if they need it. Moreover, counseling services should learn to help students with issues they face back home, including gang violence, poverty, and drug addiction.

Chapter 3 opens with an anecdote about a Black student joking about being hungry. Food scarcity is a serious problem at Renowned for both the Doubly Disadvantaged and the Privileged Poor, who are similarly ill-prepared for aspects of college life related to poverty. These issues exacerbate the disconnection disadvantaged students feel on campus. Community Detail, a job cleaning dorm bathrooms, separates disadvantaged students from their peers, who see them as servants. Similarly, a program through which students receive free admission to campus activities, Scholarship Plus, makes low-income students highly visible by creating a separate line for entry. Finally, the closure of cafeterias over spring break forces low-income students to scrounge for food unlike their wealthier peers. Jack successfully lobbies for changes in two of the three programs.

In the Conclusion, Jack reiterates the major themes of the text and argues that public schools need to be better funded. He urges students to ask as much of their colleges as their colleges ask of them.

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