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Anthony Abraham Jacks Wants to Redefine How We Think About College Campus Inequality

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Anthony Abraham Jack grew up in a single-parent household in West Coconut Grove, Florida, one of Miami’s most impoverished neighborhoods. A gifted student, he attended Miami-Dade County Public Schools for the majority of his primary and secondary education. But after being dismissed from his high-school varsity football team, his mother cast about for better options. Before long she discovered a scholarship offered by a prestigious college preparatory school in the area, Gulliver Prep.

Though Jack spent just one year at Gulliver, it prepared him for the myriad unspoken rules of elite institutions. Acquainting himself with the ways of the upper class was disorienting. Nevertheless, because education in the US is so stratified, his single year at Gulliver funneled him into the likewise renowned Amherst College. And while many might consider this an academic success story, it became clear to Jack that his struggles would follow him through the college gates.

One of his most potent observations while at Amherst was in the way that classmates from similar economic and racial backgrounds to his own were navigating the social and institutional environment. Some were anxious and alienated, while others weren’t. But he teased out an important detail: Those working-class students who attended private high schools adjusted far more easily than those who did not. Yet regardless of secondary education, each group’s material discomforts were the same—from the expectation of participating in costly activities, to suffering food insecurity during those weeks that campus dining halls are closed for spring break.

Earlier this year, Harvard University Press published The Privileged Poor, Jack’s sociological examination of the way elite colleges and universities welcome, and don’t welcome, students from the working classes. In it, he develops a more nuanced taxonomy—the Privileged Poor, and the Doubly Disadvantaged—for understanding how lower-income students navigate college campuses. I spoke with Jack about these new distinctions, how access is not the same as inclusion, and what could be done to create a more equitable system. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

-Edwin Aponte

Edwin Aponte: What led you to write this book?

Anthony Abraham Jack: When I got to Amherst I discovered, both on my first day of class and also as I worked in the admissions office as a diversity intern, that gifted education programs that target high-achieving minorities like Prep for Prep placed a lot of students in boarding, day, and preparatory high schools. Not only do they place those students in those schools, but then those schools place students at elite colleges—there’s a funnel.

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