Divided We Learn

After all the fuss about getting in, how do poor students survive on elite campuses?

A new book details obstacles, from encountering closed cafeterias to cleaning clogged toilets

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economically disadvantaged students

Anthony Abraham Jack is the author of the new book, “The Privileged Poor,’’ which looks at ways elite institutions can do a better job with scholarship students.

NEW YORK – After reading Anthony Abraham Jack’s eye-opening exposure of what it’s like to be poor on elite college campuses, I can’t help wishing we could transfer some of the anxiety around getting into these exclusive institutions toward solutions for improving life for students who actually beat the odds and get there.

As shown in Jack’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, getting in can mean going hungry over spring break, cleaning the toilets and showers of dorm mates and being directed to separate entrances at events.

Jack’s book brings home the pain and reality of on-campus poverty and puts the blame squarely on elite institutions for fostering policies that often “emphasize class differences, amplifying students’ feelings of difference and undercutting their sense of belonging.”

They are struggles that Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard, knows well from his own experience as an undergraduate scholarship student at Amherst College in Massachusetts, where he prodded his classmates to understand being dependent on food stamps, before he graduated in 2007. For the fewer than 1 percent of children from the bottom-fifth income level of American families who attend elite institutions, he writes, “college can feel like a new world filled with foreign rules.”

Related: The Rich-Poor Divide on America’s College Campuses is getting wider, faster

The students interviewed in Jack’s book provide an important contrast to the well-connected celebrity parents who are all over the news these days, thanks to the Operation Varsity Blues scandal – which has so far resulted in charges against 50 people in a bribery and cheating scheme aimed at getting unqualified students into some of the nation’s most competitive colleges.

The scandal, of course, has shock value, (Just look at those crazy parents!) but it’s all part of the broader inequality permeating U.S. education. I’ve learned there is no ceiling on what wealthy and ambitious parents will do and pay for when it comes to coveted private school admission.

In New York City, it starts before kindergarten, and could mean hiring admissions consultants for upwards of $350 an hour, offering schools large donations, buying tables at charity galas or even “chasing after board members on vacation in Anguilla, Deer Valley or Southampton,” as a recent Bloomberg News article found.

For Jack, the publicity around allegations in the Varsity Blues admissions scandal “felt like an old wound being ripped open anew. So many first-generation college students, lower-income students and students of color had to overcome entrenched inequalities to apply to college, often with minimal help.”

Most public schools in the U.S. don’t have a single staff member dedicated to college admissions guidance –  a major reason why, at The Hechinger Report, we are partnering with the makers of Personal Statement, a film documenting the challenging admissions journeys of three public high school seniors from Brooklyn, to bring public attention to this crisis.

Related: Shocked by the admissions scandal? School counselors aren’t

Jack’s book is based on deep research at a so-called “Renowned University,” where he conducted interviews with more than 100 scholarship students. (He uses pseudonyms to protect their identities.)

Jacks shakes his head at the idea that poor students on scholarship, who are supposed to be equal in the classroom, instead find themselves scrubbing the bathrooms of rich students, serving “as personal maids for their peers…it’s time for all colleges and universities to rethink such programs.”

Tales of privilege (pricey Canadian Goose jackets, private jets, exotic spring break vacations) reminded me of the stark contrasts I’ve heard so much about at elite colleges. In 2004, I met Rachel Culley (now a lawyer) and admired the stunning pink coat she was wearing in Harvard Square. Culley, who grew up in a home without plumbing in rural Maine, matter-of-factly described how she got it: She and other scholarship students waited for the day their Harvard classmates move out of dorms for the summer, leaving expensive clothing, equipment and books on the curb for the taking.

At Dartmouth College, freshmen Daniel Inoa and Natan Santos, both first-generation, minority students from Boston on full scholarships, told me of the discomfort they felt at this Ivy League college in idyllic Hanover, New Hampshire. They spoke of questioning looks when shopping for cereal after midnight at the local drugstore and of being confronted at a fraternity party by a member who told the Afro-Latino men, “You look suspicious.”

RelatedAfter a tough but promising freshman year, Dartmouth student tackles change at elite campuses

In Austin, Texas, last month, I listened to Jacks talking about his new book at the SXSWedu conference, before a packed audience. His panel included Marissa Reyes of Barnard College, a low-income, first generation, Mexican-American student who has spoken of experiencing “imposter syndrome” and described leaving Barnard in her sophomore year, in part spurred by the vast distance she felt from some of her fellow students.

“My affluent peers didn’t have the trouble of navigating social elite dynamics and making themselves more relatable,” Reyes said. “The all-expense paid trips to Europe, who their parents were…that was pretty jarring.”

Like Jack, Reyes has been speaking up for change, and she described finding improvements when she returned to Barnard after taking a leave of absence in her sophomore year. “They finally had a dean to specifically support low-income first-generation students and they signed me up,” she recalled. “And they had a program that identifies first-generation low-income students and pairs them with a freshman buddy. Those were meaningful changes and I’m grateful for them.”

Aya Waller-Bey, who attended Georgetown University and is now studying for a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, also spoke on the SXSWedu panel about how hard it was when she first got to campus and realized how little money she had to live on. She, too, is now speaking out for change.

“I wasn’t gifted rent, a car, furniture….it was a struggle,” Waller-Bey said. “The transition was difficult. The narrative is about getting in, but what happens after is what matters.”

Related: Ivy League Degree, Now what?

Her point, and Jack’s spot-on analysis, both illustrate why the discussion of elite campuses must shift from admission to acclimation.

Jack’s book is important not just because of the often raw and hauntingly honest stories of students who confided in him. Jack isn’t simply telling their stories. He’s taking a much-needed stand. He’s calling on colleges to make specific changes (already, some have started keeping cafeterias open during spring break), and he explains why such changes matter for both access and equity.

Access, Jack says, is not inclusion. The time has come to address “the entrenched structural inequalities that handicap America’s forgotten neighborhoods and neglected public schools.”

It’s a tall order and a long road. Jack’s book is a start.

This column about economically disadvantaged students was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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