Sociologist and Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack uses his personal experiences and research to help independent schools better prepare their students from diverse economic backgrounds for college.
By Juanita I.C. Traughber, Communications Director
A year after releasing his book “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students,” Havard University professor and author Anthony Abraham Jack visited University School of Nashville to share his message on how higher education institutions and independent schools can better help students from low-income families in their academic careers.
USN administrators and trustees began Thursday, February 13 by having a breakfast conversation with Jack about his research on disadvantaged students’ experiences in education. They focused on how USN can revise how it prepares incoming students and soon-to-be alumni from diverse economic backgrounds to "drink from the fire hose" in higher education, advice Jack has shared with more than 60 universities and schools during his book tour and talks.
“I am a proponent of pre-immersion programs,” Jack said. “The motivation should be, ‘I want people to have a localized knowledge of people and place.’” Instead of academic subjects, they should focus on relationship building with clerks in the financial aid office, staff in the study aboard and career services offices, and other faculty who can be a network of support.
In his book, Jack coined two phrases for students from low-income families who matriculate to elite colleges and universities. The “privileged poor” have the benefit of attending college preparatory schools, and the “doubly disadvantaged” went to public schools, often lacking resources to adequately prepare them for college. A first-generation college graduate, Jack put himself in the former category, having attended Miami’s Gulliver Preparatory School for his senior year before enrolling in Amherst College in Massachusetts.
He shared experiences from high school and college with USN High School faculty and students during a lunch and learn in the Auditorium and urged USN students in leadership positions “step up, step back, and bring along” their peers when given opportunities. Other advice he shared with High Schoolers was to: seek counseling when needed and reach out for support; make full use of office hours to have a developmental network; use their summer breaks strategical to get exposure to the fields in which they are interested, such as through internships, to have information and experiences to make informed decisions about their careers; and take advantage of student life opportunities funded by the school as well as time to have fun at parties to balance their academic focuses with fun.
Jack said college professors should help all students decipher the “coded language” of higher education by defining words and phrases like “office hours” in their syllabi and discussing in class what office hours are and how students can use them. By “translating the college experience,” faculty and administrators will give all students knowledge on how to access institutional resources. For instance, when he began attending Amherst and heard people talking about “fellowships” he took the term as a literal religious gathering instead of a highly competitive postgraduate scholarship.
He also focused on the opportunities college breaks provide for students with food insecurities. He urges colleges and universities to keep one dining hall open for faculty and students not traveling during Thanksgiving, fall, winter, and spring breaks to curate moments for organic interactions between them over meals.
Jack signed copies of “The Privileged Poor” for students and faculty. The book is on the summer reading list for USN faculty. It focuses on how backgrounds can affect chances of success in education, the experiences in higher education of independent school alumni from low-income families, how they have difficulties adjusting to collegiate life, and provides advice on how university policies and campus cultures should change to reduce hidden advantages. Jack said the college admissions bribery scandal propelled his book to prominence and has given him opportunities to write articles for The New York Times and The Washington Post as well as interviews with international news outlets.
Jack defines himself as “a sociologist of urban poverty who is interested in the mobility and trajectory of children and youth.” He is a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and holds the Shutzer Assistant Professorship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. While in Nashville, he also gave Vanderbilt University’s 12th annual Murray Lecture.
One in five USN students receive need-based financial aid, and socioeconomic diversity is part of USN’s mission to mirror the greater Nashville community. Scholarships account for 13% of the school’s operating budget.
Quotes to hold:
“I want us to learn more about how poverty and equality work rather than looking specifically at, ‘oh you’re privileged poor and that’s why you’re doing that’ or ‘oh you’re double disadvantaged.’ How can we learn from their experiences without then having someone be predetermined by their existence within a school?”
“We have to realize that there are some types of inequality that individual schools are never ever going to be able to disrupt,” Jack said. “The way in which schools like [USN] can give a preview of college and then begin to help students, and more importantly their families, prepare to be oriented toward it can be very important.”