Scholarships alone are not enough.

If colleges really want help disadvantaged and minority students, they need to consider the myriad ways they differ from more privileged students—and from each other, scholar Anthony Abraham Jack Ph.D, told an audience in Butler Commons at Fordham’s Rose Hill campus on June 6.

“I have long grown tired on analyses that just focus on students whose parents went to college, and students whose parents did not,” he said, adding that colleges and universities need to assess these student’s needs and put into place structures that provide the appropriate guidance and assistance.

“We cannot escape the fact that while some neighborhoods and schools keep us and our children from hurt, harm, and dangers, others place us in the thick of it. America’s streets still bear strange fruit,” Jack said during his talk, part of an event titled “Makes Me Wanna Holler: Rethinking Access and Belonging in the Shadow of Increasing Economic Inequality and Political Polarization.”

Systemic issues like segregation, joblessness, and poverty all come into play in the lives of college students, he said. And while some poor and minority students have benefited from the culture of elite private high schools, many have never learned to advocate for themselves or navigate a complex educational environment, said Jack, an assistant professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

In his talk, he shared the findings of 103 interviews of black and Latino students he conducted for his book The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard University Press, 2019).

Higher education has become depressingly stratified, he said. Just 14% of undergraduates in the most competitive colleges come from the bottom half of the nation’s income distribution. Meanwhile, 38 colleges have more students from the top one percent than the bottom 60 percent.

But while many colleges have made efforts to diversify their student body, minority students have been recruited both from high schools that are economically disadvantaged and those that are well off. In the past, social scientists and journalists alike have lumped them in together, he said.

“They wrote of a single experience dwelling on culture shock and isolation. They talked about a group of students at risk. All the while, as my research uncovered, colleges and universities were hedging their bets,” he said. “They were getting their new diversity from old sources: The Andovers and the Exeters of the world.”

Using Cultural Capital to Get Ahead

By admitting students who’d succeeded at places like these prestigious boarding schools, Jack said, colleges could be certain they’d possess cultural capital, which he defined as “those taken-for-granted ways of being that are valued in a particular context.”

“Colleges expect students to be comfortable and proactive in forging relationships with faculty from the moment they set foot on campus. This is the road to recommendation letters, internships, invitations to special dinners,” he said.

“Yet this expectation to be more proactive remains unsaid.”

This is an example of a “hidden curriculum,” he said, and it became abundantly clear when he interviewed a woman named Alice for his book. She came from a public high school where trash cans were set on fire and teachers exhausted themselves just trying to keep order. So when she hears professors say their doors are open, she doesn’t believe them.

“For Alice, hunkering down and doing things on her own was the way to get ahead. Her behavior makes sense. It helped her through high school, where contact and help with teachers was not always a given. It helped her get to college,” he said. But when she got there, simple phrases like “office hours” didn’t make sense to her.

“Why don’t we define what office hours are, instead of just repeating what’s on the syllabus? There are lessons that colleges need to learn too.”

Combatting Food and Shelter Insecurity

Colleges and universities also fail to help poor students when they close residence halls for spring break, or they charge extra to those who would like to stay on campus. Food insecurity is a major problem as well; during his research, Jack encountered a woman who lines up extra social dates for the week of spring break.

“Banking on gendered norms of men paying for the first date, she felt that her only option was to treat OK Cupid as if it were Door Dash, Tindr as if it were Grub Hub. In order to eat, she offered her time. This is a reality for far too many undergraduates every year,” he said.

Ultimately, Jack said colleges must move from merely admitting students to making them feel like they belong.

“Undergraduates from America’s forgotten neighborhoods and ignored schools are truly disadvantaged if colleges and university continue to privilege privilege,” he said.

The gathering was hosted by the University’s Office of the Chief Diversity Officer.


Patrick Verel is a news producer for Fordham Now. He can be reached at [email protected] or (212) 636-7790.