In remembering and honoring the life and legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 17, the Middlesex community welcomed to campus Professor Anthony Jack, holder of the Shutzer Assistant Professorship at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. A sociologist and the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students, Professor Jack has focused his research on the socioeconomic disparities in higher education and how equity might be achieved in these institutions.
Having met many Middlesex graduates who have gone on to Harvard, Professor Jack noted at the outset, “I know I’m in good hands tonight. I’m honored to be here to continue the conversation about access and inclusion in these troubling times.”
The subject of his studies, as Professor Jack explained, is “not just my profession but my personal life.” Relating his own experience as a low-income student at Amherst College, he recalled that while other students casually talked about expensive concert tickets and vacation travel, he juggled four jobs because “rest was a luxury I did not think I could afford.” Moreover, he met few fellow students there who shared his situation, who “knew what it was like to study by candlelight because the power was out or who understood that, at times, there was ‘more month than money.’”
Today, he said, higher education remains highly unequal in America. “One of every two students is the first in their family to go to college,” Professor Jack stated, “yet only 14 percent of those first-generation students attend the most competitive colleges.” Many, he pointed out, are excluded from such selective colleges simply by a lack of information about them and by their cost.
But even those “with humble means and herculean drives” who reach those competitive universities often find, as Professor Jack did, that their letter of admission does not mean acceptance and inclusion. Through his research, he has documented why this may be: how poverty and other inequalities shape students’ college experience – and what changes can be made by universities to improve outcomes.
From his interviews with Black, Latinx, and white lower-income undergraduates, Professor Jack discerned two groups of students: the “Doubly Disadvantaged,” who entered college from local, typically distressed public high schools, and the “Privileged Poor,” who had attended selective boarding, day, and preparatory high schools. The latter group, he noticed, knew how to be proactive and felt empowered to meet with professors – skills that helped them successfully navigate college life. The Doubly Disadvantaged, however, were less comfortable talking with adults and asking for help. “Hunkering down and doing the work is what worked for these students in high school,” Professor Jack said. “In college, they might not know what ‘office hours’ are.”
To address these kinds of overlooked inequities, he stressed, “We must be more proactive in giving support. We need to return to basics: Let’s say what ‘office hours’ are and not just when they are.”
Similarly, Professor Jack observed, it must be recognized that other phrases, like “spring break,” have a different meaning for lower-income students. “Colleges have an assumption that all students can afford to depart campus,” he said, leaving those who cannot go home facing food insecurity while dining halls are closed.
“We need to move from access to inclusion,” Professor Jack affirmed, “from who we let in, to what do they need while they are here. Access and inclusion are two different things.”
Referencing a famous statement by writer James Baldwin [“I love America more than any country in the world and, exactly for that reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually”], Professor Jack encouraged students to make their voices heard, to “dare to demand as much of Middlesex as Middlesex demands of you,” and to “be bold, be you.” In turn, their questions for him reflected their interest in recognizing and addressing inequities, carrying on the work of Dr. King.