[Review] The Privileged Poor

Dear Reader,

What does it mean to be a broke college student? When I was in college my friends and I would use the broke-college kid excuse in jest to justify a night in with mixed drinks rather than spring for the $15 cocktails. While many college students are thrifty, a college student who literally does not have enough money to survive is no laughing matter. The book The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students by Anthony Abraham Jack sheds light on groups of college students who must make money their primary concern in all decisions just to make it to graduation.

The Privileged Poor is research on and a critique of how elite colleges are failing disadvantaged students. When describing the contemporary situation, Jack divides college students into three groups:

  • “upper income” to describe students who come from middle-class to upper-income families and have attended good public high schools, private schools, or preparatory schools
  • “privileged poor” to describe students who come from a lower income bracket, yet attended good public high schools, private schools, or preparatory schools
  • “doubly disadvantaged,” to describe students who come from a lower-income bracket and went to underfunded/ under-resourced public schools

Depending on what group students come from can determine a lot about their college experience. Students from upper-income families often have the easiest transition to the elite college campus. These students come from environments that have taught them how to complete advanced coursework, interact meaningfully with professors, and integrate well on campus. The privileged poor also fare well when it comes to the on-campus transition, as these students too have been adequately prepared for college life. However, because the privileged poor rely on scholarships to complete their studies, these students struggle financially and have to make difficult decisions to stay afloat. The doubly disadvantaged, as you may have already expected, have the roughest time on elite college campuses. These students are not adequately prepared to thrive in the college classroom and do not come from environments of affluence that allow them a comfortable transition to college life.

In this book, Jack describes the state of colleges as it relates to class divides. For example, in 38 U.S. colleges, including five in the Ivy Leagues, more students came from families representing the top 1 percent of income earners than from the entire bottom 60 percent. Additionally, Jack describes the hurdles that both the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantage face including scrounging for food over spring break when campuses are generally closed and taking lucrative janitorial jobs cleaning their peers’ toilets to make ends meet.

At the end of this book, Jack describes ways in which university administration and educators can do more to assist poor and disadvantaged college students including providing students with meal options over spring break, offering well-paying professional (i.e. not janitorial) on-campus jobs, and clearly explaining classroom expectations at the start of the semester.

A college degree has often been compared to as a golden ticket out of poverty, however, stepping on campus presents poor and disadvantaged students with challenges that their wealthier peers do not experience and that their professors and advisors can be largely oblivious to. While many universities are offering more support to students in need, according to Jack, there is still more to be done to make colleges more equitable and less divided institutions.

Happy reading!



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