Sometimes scholars have a tendency to say that “mesearch,” research that is rooted in a scholar’s personal story, is not real or is not grounded enough. I don’t believe in that. Some of our greatest contributions to social science research has been based on individuals’ personal experience, because they always connected their personal experience to a larger question that needs to be investigated. I am a first-generation college student from a lower income family. But I related my personal experience to the question of: how does poverty and inequality shape how students make it through college? What are the social processes that lead to the different experiences of groups of students at a particular university? Those were the larger questions that I was interested in. So for those who don’t see themselves in the literature and want to find a way to talk about a larger social process that is grounded in one’s personal experience, do not be ashamed or dissuaded from doing so. Rather, be encouraged to connect that inspiration to a question that you can investigate empirically, so that you can show just how much we have missed out on the social world when they ignore people like you.
Hi, my name is Anthony Jack. I’m a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students. These students, the privileged poor, are lower income students who go to private high schools. They go to schools that cost $50-$55,000 a year. For high school, right. These are people who, their teachers are PhDs. They study abroad in high school. It sounds like a very different experience what you would think.
And lower income students who go to public schools, those who I call the doubly disadvantaged, are economically poor. But they also go to schools that are disadvantaged in a number of different ways, especially compared to their private school peers. And so I highlight this overlooked diversity among lower income students to show not only where they go to high school, but how those experiences in high school drastically shape their experiences in college. The privileged poor are used to wealth, used to Whites, used to interacting with faculty members. The doubly disadvantaged, especially those who are Black and Latinx, are not.
And this project got its start, though I did not know it, when I transferred to a private high school in the summer of my junior year. I had a coach who loved athlete students and disliked student athletes. Given that I was the latter, he kicked me off the team after learning that I had to have shoulder surgery from an injury sustained while I was in a football game. I was scheduled for surgery; the doctor said I would make a recovery and I couldn’t finish my senior year. So I ended up switching to a private school in Miami called Gulliver Prep. That’s how I got to Amherst
And then when I got to Amherst, I noticed that a lot of my friends were telling stories that they also want to private schools, but then I learned they were also poor like me. And what I thought was an individual detour through private school for me, was a well-established, like, on-ramp to private, elite high schools, thanks to programs like Prep for Prep and A Better Chance. When I got to graduate school, I was going to study something totally different. I was going to study Black male unemployment, from a qualitative perspective. But when I got to graduate school, I got really fascinated with culture. sociology, got really fascinated with qualitative methods. But everybody who was using those two tools to study to study social life, especially in college, wrote about poor Black people in this in one way–culture shock, isolation, they don’t know how to fit in at college. And I’m thinking myself like, that’s half right. Right? But what about all my friends who went to Andover, Exeter, Deerfield, and St. Paul’s, and schools like that? There was no place for them in the literature.
And what my research shows for the first time and what, really, I think, shocked other people who were not in admissions and who were not poor, Black at elite schools, was that 50% of the poor Black students and one third of poor Latinx students at selective colleges are actually the alumni of boarding, day, and preparatory high schools. And that’s not what you would expect. Poor student, poor family, poor neighborhood, poor high school, right? Fifty percent of the time.
The privilege poor and doubly disadvantaged—those terms represent the first time I took ownership of the research project in a very real way, right, to come up with those terms, like, to name something that was entirely your own. That was, that was huge. That was a huge moment. It was two students at Amherst College who gave me the the fuel I needed to finish—in the sense, they told me, they were the first to tell me that my work has given them a language to understand why they see the college so differently, because they were both from New Jersey, both from the same type of neighborhood, but one went to boarding school; the other didn’t. They met, they connected before they got to school. A little bit before they got to school, they decided to room together, you know, after everything, and just did not click. They really started to fight and bicker about even like, little small things. And they would try to figure it out, like, “we should be friends, though, we should–we should we know the same restaurants, we know the same streets, why can’t we be friends?” And anyway, they [told] me, like, “you gave us a language to understand our experience.” I wasn’t expecting that. And that was the first time I heard it back. It was, it was a couple years ago. And that made me continue on.
I didn’t realize how many alumni would find that this book gave them a sense of peace, which shocked me because they had been grappling with their relationship with the school or some of their peers. And they, like some students, have told me that the terms themselves: privileged poor and doubly disadvantaged, and then the book as a whole has given them not only language to talk about their experience, either with their peers, or even with their children. And so understanding why they experience very, very tense antagonistic relationships with faculty was not because they somehow were deficient or wrong. It was because of understanding just how big of a gap there is between the public high school that they went to, and the expected rules that they were now (then) expected to follow in college, and how that really, really undercut their first two or three years, and [were] further underlying their experience with the college. And I didn’t think that that would happen.
It was important to me to talk about how interviews never leave you. When you’re writing a dissertation, you are so focused on the finish line that you, you wear yourself out, you wear yourself down. But I wanted to talk about the emotional, physical, and academic journey that doing a qualitative dissertation was. And I also owed it to my students because I’m a first-generation college student. Their stories reminded me of a lot of things that I had forgotten about, or rather, that I had not thought about in a while. So some of those memories came back with a vengeance, like with a with a certain level of urgency, like, remember me, right. It was, like, a, you know, things that happened back home that you saw in the neighborhood, it was just like, calling back to, remember me. It took me back to being that person from Coconut Grove. It took me back to being in that community, seeing people have fights, seeing people, you know, the police tape and people getting shot and hearing about people getting shot.
So that was, yeah, it was purposeful for me to do it because also it was, it was kind of like a wake up call to, for me to talk about the graduate school process as a whole. It is a solitary journey compared to undergrad and I didn’t know just how much so it would be until I was halfway through it. And when you start doing a dissertation, the only three people who you have regular contact with are your committee members. That’s it. Sometimes friends don’t even see you, family don’t even see you. And so I wanted to write about–yes, waking up one night, sweating after having a nightmare of reliving everything that happened in my student interviews that week. It was really, really bad. And I was having back pains because I was sitting in the chair for hours and hours and hours. I’m like always on edge because I want to make sure I pay attention to every single word a student tells me and yeah, so I had to adjust. I had to cut back.
Because also I didn’t want the quality of the data to be compromised, either. So even if I was like, focused on myself, it was always like the data, the data. I wrote this book in such a way that anyone can pick it up and read it. I have a general rule when it comes to my writing: if my mama can’t read it, I don’t want to write it. My mom was a very smart lady, but not college-educated, right? So there are certain language and lingo that academics love to throw in, jargon that we love to use that alienates the public. I am not only from the people who are the public, I’m from the part of the public that we ignore, right, the low-income, disadvantaged communities that newspapers ignore when they write how they write. So I wrote in a very accessible way because I wanted anyone to be able to pick it up.
I want somebody to understand the gendered perspective of this. I didn’t get a chance to do so, in the particular project because I was so focused on social class and looking at the experiences of the doubly disadvantaged and the privilege poor. There are there are additional questions, you know, some people who are interested in athletics, some people who are interested in social clubs more. Dig deeper into the parts that you feel were discussed that need to be investigated in a much deeper way. I hope that this book is an invitation to that. I’m not defensive about it—I mean, there are certain questions that I couldn’t answer. It’s not perfect. It’s not complete. It’s not a complete answer, but it is sufficient to start new conversations, and even more importantly, to give new insights into the world that we thought we knew.