In his senior year of high school, Anthony Abraham Jack ’07 transferred from Coral Gables High School, near his hometown of Coconut Grove, Fla., to Gulliver Preparatory, a private school near Miami. At Amherst he double-majored in women’s and gender studies and religion, in addition to being pre-med. He went on to receive his master’s and Ph.D. in sociology from Harvard. Jack is now a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Shutzer Assistant Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. He’s an avid knitter and the father of two cats. Our conversation is about his first book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, which came out in March, and for which he spent two years interviewing more than 100 students at the pseudonymous “Renowned University.”
Your book introduces people to the “privileged poor”—students from low-income backgrounds who have attended private secondary schools. I know that you consider yourself a member of the privileged poor. How was your transition from Coral Gables High School to Gulliver Preparatory?
The two words that best describe my transition are culture shock. I went from a school where even my International Baccalaureate classes sometimes had 35 students, to a school where my largest class was 16. At Gulliver, there were many more teachers who had Ph.D.s. I saw a higher concentration of wealth amongst the students. I’ll never forget that one father, talking to a group of kids at Gulliver, said, “You know, when you buy a Range Rover, you only buy it in black. Any other color doesn’t make sense.” And I thought to myself, “Okay. Buying a Range Rover? That’s an assumption.” As if everybody was going to have one. People talked about backpacking through Europe. I’m just like, “I’ve never been on a plane before.” And so my culture shock came not when I went to Amherst, but when I went to Gulliver.
The privileged poor look to their professors to mentor them in their personal lives and in their work lives. The “doubly disadvantaged”— students from low-income backgrounds who have attended public secondary schools—think of that sort of outreach as brown-nosing. They choose to focus solely on the quality of their coursework. Which strategy is most effective?
If the student’s desired outcome is to be noticed, known and thought of at different opportunities, then the most effective strategy is the one in which you are engaging with faculty members. It’s not just what you know and who you know; it’s also who knows you and how well they do. It’s more than networking, right? It’s building a network. Networking is how many cards you give out, how many people are in your LinkedIn network. When you build a network, there’s an investment in you, a reciprocal relationship. The sad reality is that being known can trump being the best. Someone may not be the smartest or best-performing, but they have a network that supports them and endorses them for different things—things they may not even know about initially.
I wish it was a system that actually values hard work and dedication. Can we get to that place?”
It’s hard to hear that being known can be more important than being the best.
I do wish students got recognition more for their work than for being known. I wish it was a system that actually values hard work and dedication. Especially when times get tough—you’re three hours from a deadline and you realize something is off—you don’t want the person who is just known; you want the person who is known to do well under pressure. Can we get to that place? I don’t know. I hope that reading about how social class shapes the ways in which students engage with faculty will inform not only students on how to engage faculty but also faculty on how to engage students. In my research, the offices of career services, study abroad, mental health—they played catcher. They waited for students to come to them. But the students who often need them the most are those who are least likely to come. So this is not just about rewarding who got straight A’s or who tried the hardest; it’s also about how students gain full access to the university’s resources.
In chapter 3, you talk about students working during orientation, cleaning dorms. Their peers view them as “the person who cleaned my toilet” rather than as “Lucy from my philosophy class who’s bright and performs well under pressure.” Can you talk about how a student’s work identity sometimes collides with their academic identity?
There are students whose academic careers are shaped by federal work-study—the mandate to work as part of their financial aid package. Oftentimes the most available work-study jobs, and sometimes the highest-paying, are manual labor. Now, I’m not saying that students shouldn’t do manual labor. I’m the grandson of a maid, the brother of a janitor. Cleaning up—my family does it, and I do it as well. But what does it mean to incentivize manual labor in a place that privileges the life of the mind?
If you’re cleaning the toilets of your peers, then all of a sudden we have moments of structural exclusion—instances in which policies push certain students into the margins. Colleges and universities have a role to play, because they benefit from federal work-study: instead of hiring unionized labor, which costs more, they can oftentimes use student labor. I’m not trying to diminish the sense of pride that one has in doing the work, but there’s a fundamental difference between cleaning the dorm for 10 hours and serving as someone’s research assistant for 10 hours. One gets you access to letters of recommendation. One gets you access to a professor’s or administrator’s networks. One gets you access to more cultural and social capital. The other gets you a paycheck, and that’s about it.
One student told you that being around great wealth encourages lower-income students “to pursue selfish goals.” As a senior, I remember thinking I had to choose between making a lot of money, as a consultant, for example, and doing something more community-minded, such as teaching. How can career centers help students think beyond those two extremes?
Elite schools funnel students into corporate jobs. There are times when literally the entire undergrad calendar, especially for juniors and seniors, is oriented toward when McKinsey and Bain come to campus. These companies take over a student center and have interviews. The mountain comes to them. That’s one part of the story.
The other part is that people ask the doubly disadvantaged, “You’re going to go back home after college, right, to serve your low-income, racially segregated area?” We never ask students from the Upper East Side, “You’re going to go back to the Upper East Side when you graduate, right?” It’s paternalistic. It’s saying, “That’s where you’ll feel more comfortable”—even though the pay difference is substantial.
Law students spend each summer doing a different type of job. Public service, private sector—they get experience in both. I would love to see a similar model for undergraduates, one that explores the full range of a profession. Let’s say you’re interested in education. If you are low-income, career centers will say, “You should be a teacher or a counselor”—a front-facing position. It’s honorable work, but you’re not paid what you should be paid. What if, in your first summer, you worked at an education think tank, and in your second you interned for your senator? Then, the third summer, you did educational research? Teaching is a noble profession, but we funnel certain students, because of their social background, into positions where they’re underresourced and under-prepared, when there are many, many opportunities to influence education in this country.
You worked as a diversity intern in the Amherst admission office, recruiting students from programs that place low-income students into private high schools. In your book’s conclusion, you critique these programs: “They are well-meaning efforts, but they benefit individuals rather than the collective. For every student who is chosen for one of these programs, several others stay behind in underfunded schools. They reward the few rather than raising up everyone.” How would you strengthen these programs, or with what would you replace them?
That statement was not to say that the programs do something bad; it’s just that I don’t want people to look to these programs and say, “This is social policy.” It’s not social policy. For us to invest more public funds into vouchers to private schools, without addressing the public schools that these students are leaving, is to abdicate responsibility. And schools have very porous boundaries, right? Neighborhood problems quickly become school struggles. The way in which food insecurity was a part of many of my students’ lives before they got to college shows that when you try to do education reform, it’s not just about addressing the test-score gap. So many things lead up to why students have different outcomes in testing; they oftentimes have more to do with what happens at home and en route to school.
We never ask students from the Upper East Side, ‘You’re going to go back when you graduate, right?’”
I know that this book project resurfaced events from your own childhood that you hadn’t yet grappled with. At Amherst, many of my peers pursued academic projects that allowed them to investigate the places they came from. What have you learned about taking care of yourself from doing work that hits so closely to home?
There was one particularly bad week when students were talking to me about what happened to them before college. And it felt like I relived every one of those interviews in one sequence of dreams. I woke up scared. I felt the fist throwing at me, the glass shattering. It forced me to take a pause. Even though I was doing the interviews, I was still a graduate student, I still had papers to write, real things that I had to do. So I stopped rushing my walks along the Charles River. I made time for TV again. (When you read the book, you’ll see how important Scandal is to the entire story.) I got a massage, I started going to get mani-pedis, because there are two things that you can’t do when you get a massage or a mani-pedi: you can’t be on your phone, and you can’t be checking emails, right? I liked that I invested in myself in the same way that I invested in my work. And that’s what I’m trying to do right now.
Lola Fadulu ’17, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., will soon become the 2019-20 New York Times David Rosenbaum Reporting Fellow. She majored in philosophy at Amherst.
Photographs by: Tony Luong