For Students Who Grew Up Poor, An Elite Campus Can Seem Like a Sea of Wealth and Snobbery

For Students Who Grew Up Poor, An Elite Campus Can Seem Like a Sea of Wealth and Snobbery

Anthony Abraham Jack
Anthony Abraham Jack
11 min read

“Where are the other poor black kids?” This is the first question I remember asking myself, a chubby freshman with my hair in cornrows, while walking across the Amherst College campus. I was in the center of the main quad, standing outside Johnson Chapel. The lawn was freshly mowed. It looked pristine, a shimmering deep green. The Massachusetts evening, slightly chilly for a Miami transplant such as myself, was filled with excitement as the incoming freshmen meandered around, nervously greeting one another. Conversations bubbled all around me. Wasting little time, my new peers enlisted me in a rite of passage that, fifteen years later, I now call “convocation conversations”—those quick, casual introductory chats that happen en route to meals and classes, where students conveniently work in verbal versions of their resumes and narrate their summer itineraries for any and all to hear.

These strangers—my new classmates—swapped stories of summer fun. Multiweek trips abroad. Fancy parties at summer homes. Courtside seats at professional basketball games. Invitations to private premieres of movies that, as far as I knew, had not yet hit theaters. Many of these kids were white, but the black students were chiming in too, going tit-­for-­tat recounting the elaborate stories behind their passport stamps. One black classmate casually mentioned that she had flown on a private jet. I thought back to my first time on a plane, which had been just a few months ago: me struggling to chew five pieces of Wrigley’s Doublemint gum, because everyone had made me afraid that my ears would pop, as I boarded a Delta Airlines flight from Fort Lauderdale to Hartford, Connecticut, for my Amherst football recruiting trip. I tried to think of a story that I could add. The only family vacations I had known were drives up I­95 from Miami to a cousin’s house in Georgia. These rich kids had their own version of summer. In my family, summer was just a season, a hundred days of heat, humidity and hurricanes. And mosquitoes.

I was surrounded by affluence; some of my Amherst classmates were flat­-out rich. The Amherst brochure boasted that roughly 40 percent of students received financial aid, but I knew what that really meant: More than half of my classmates came from families that made too much money to qualify for any financial aid. I was not surprised by the wealth. After all, I already knew what it meant to go to school with rich people. I had just finished my senior year at Gulliver Preparatory, a wealthy private high school in Miami. Although I was only there for a year, it gave me a taste of what was to come, both socially and academically. My best friend at Gulliver, whose father convinced me to start eating burgers medium instead of well done, which was the rule in my house, received a car his senior year, and an all­-expenses-­paid backpacking trip through Europe as a graduation gift. The first time I heard the word “hostel” was while sitting in the larger of the two family rooms in their sprawling, Spanish­-style home.

But there was a difference between what I had experienced at Gulliver and what I found at Amherst. While I was not shocked by the wealth, I was surprised by its color. The rich kids at Gulliver, those who drove Range Rovers and boasted of extravagant vacations, were not black. But at Amherst, many of my new wealthy classmates were.

What I discovered that afternoon was the same thing I would read about years later, as a sociology graduate student, in William Bowen and Derek Bok’s groundbreaking study of American higher education, The Shape of the River. Bowen and Bok found that the majority of black students at the twenty­-eight elite colleges and universities they studied (from Ivy League institutions, like Columbia University, to flagship public universities, like the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor) came from upper-­income families. My Amherst classmates were no exception. Some were the sons of Bain Capital and McKinsey & Company. Others were the daughters of the Mayo Clinic and Massachusetts General Hospital. I was not. I was a Head Start kid from Coconut Grove, a distressed community that, in 2013, the Miami Herald called a “neighborhood that time forgot.” My mother patrolled the hallways of Ponce de Leon Middle School for over thirty years, wearing a green polo shirt with Security in white block letters emblazoned across its back. By day, my older brother, his pale blue uniform peppered with bleach spots, cleaned the classrooms of my old elementary school; by night, he cleaned the emergency rooms at South Miami Hospital.

Before I transferred to Gulliver, the closest I got to rich was through the stories my grandmother told me. For her entire adult life, she cleaned the homes of wealthy white families, mainly doctors and lawyers. When my cousin was arrested for possession of a controlled substance, one of my grandmother’s employers, a lawyer, represented him as a favor for her twenty­-plus years of service. She did not gossip about what went on inside her employers’ homes. Now and then, however, she would let slip a detail about an expensive purchase or a lavish family trip. The father of one of the families, a commercial pilot, invited my grandmother to travel on one of his flights so that she could hear his voice come across the intercom greeting passengers as they took their seats. (She never did go.) But second­hand accounts and unanswered invitations were the extent of my exposure—wealth was always just a story to me. Hearing my classmates at Amherst recount their adventures, just as distant as those my grandmother shared when we sat at her knee, I resigned myself to be, yet again, one of the few poor black people in a rich (mostly) white place, just as I had been at Gulliver.

My hasty conclusion that afternoon was reasonable. Higher education in America is highly unequal and disturbingly stratified. Youth from poor families of all races, but especially those from black and Latino families, are less likely to go to college than their wealthy peers. When they do go to college, they rarely attend schools like Amherst. Although half of all undergraduates in the United States are the first in their family to go to college—with most of those coming from poor backgrounds—first­-generation college students are disproportionately relegated to community colleges, for-­profit colleges, and less­-selective four-­year colleges. Those institutions share some troubling traits: resources are few, aid for students is scarce, and retention is low.

That same disproportion, of course, works in reverse. The more selective the college, the fewer the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, in terms of both class and race. In their examination of college demographics between 1982 and 2006, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce clearly documented this phenomenon. At the most competitive tier of colleges—think Columbia, Princeton, Stanford—just 14 percent of undergraduates came from the bottom half of the country’s income distribution. At the second­-most competitive tier—the likes of Dickinson, Furman and Skidmore—just 16 percent did. This paucity of lower-­income students at the most selective colleges and universities, which comprised 193 institutions at the time of their study, stands in stark contrast to the fact that in these same two tiers, 63 and 70 percent of students, respectively, came from the top quartile of the income distribution. Put another way, children from well­-to-­do families, as measured in terms of earnings, took up two ­thirds of the seats at the best schools.

New data provide a more detailed, and even more discouraging, snapshot of where Americans from families of different income levels go to college. In 2017, the economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues found that students from families in the top 1 percent—those with incomes of more than $630,000 a year—are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League college than are students from families that make $30,000 or less a year. The study showed that a startling number of elite colleges—38, by their count, including places like Colby College and Bucknell University—have more students from families in the top 1 percent than from families in the bottom 60 percent (the growing group of families that make less than $65,000). At Colorado College, the ratio is greater than 2 to 1. At Washington University in St. Louis, it is just over 3.5 to 1. Another comparison, this time looking at the college destinations of the super­rich, puts this inequality into even sharper perspective. Chetty’s report showed that the percentage of students from families in the top 0.1 percent who attended elite universities (40 percent) was the same as the percentage of students from poor families who attended any college at all, either two-­year or four­-year.

We might have better data now, but the situation itself is not new. Indeed, for more than two decades, colleges have faced significant pressure to do more to combat inequality, and in particular, to use their considerable wealth to address the affordability problem of higher education. In 2008, just before the financial crisis, the Senate Finance Committee admonished colleges for not spending more of their growing endowments on financial aid and access. The public has chimed in as well, lamenting the rising tuition costs that have priced out a growing segment of the American population. Colleges were (and still are) missing out on students from humble means who have a powerful drive to succeed. To address this inequality in access, which was keeping poor youth from reaping the benefits of an elite education—as well as to respond to public outcries against skyrocketing costs—a few colleges introduced no-­loan financial aid policies in the late 1990s. Rather than the usual combination of scholarships and loans, which was still prohibitively expensive for many poor families, schools began to create financial aid packages that replaced loans with grants and other forms of aid intended to help recruit and then support academically gifted applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Princeton University began this movement in 1998. Then-president Harold T. Shapiro noted of the policy, “Our aim is to do as much as we can to be sure that no student decides not to apply to Princeton solely for financial reasons.” A number of colleges followed Princeton’s lead. Amherst did so in 1999, which helped pave the way for my admission a few years later. By 2008, all the Ivies were on board. Stanford University, MIT and Duke University adopted similar policies. Although enacted mostly by private colleges, no-­loan financial aid was taken up by some flagship public universities as well. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was the first public university to do so, in 2003. The University of Virginia and the University of Michigan followed suit soon thereafter. Donald Saleh, former dean of admissions and financial aid at Cornell University, expressed the general sentiment about this new approach to aid: “There’s an importance in having socio­economic diversity, so that campuses reflect the country in general rather than a campus that is upper income.”

These revolutionary policies increased access to many universities, especially elite ones. The effects were felt right away: Student bodies began to look different. Vassar College, which in 2015 won the inaugural Cooke Prize for Equity in Educational Excellence, nearly doubled the percentage of Pell Grant–eligible students—students from families in the bottom quarter of the income distribution—from 12 percent in 2008 to 23 percent in 2015. The University of North Carolina and Amherst reported that at least 20 percent of the students who enrolled between 2012 and 2014 were from lower-­income families.

Elite colleges may be few in number, but their influence—on the lives of individual students and on American society as a whole—is outsized. For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, attending an elite college or university serves as a mobility springboard. Graduating from any college provides benefits, especially to students belonging to groups that are the recipients of policy initiatives aimed to diversify universities along class and racial lines. But this difference is even more pronounced for elite colleges, where graduation rates are higher. The nation’s most selective colleges boast graduation rates of 90 percent or more, while the average for community colleges is 57 percent. While some of this gap is due to differences in the preparation of the students who attend each type of institution, there is no doubt that more resources and support are available at elite colleges and universities. The economic payoff of attendance is also larger. A 1999 study found that graduates of elite private schools had incomes 39 percent higher than those of their peers who attended low­-ranked public universities. Whether looking at Supreme Court justices or leaders of different industries, alumni from elite colleges and universities are the norm rather than the exception. The sociologist Lauren Rivera has shown that students from elite institutions have an advantage when trying to enter lucrative fields like management consulting, law and investment banking; as a result, alumni of elite colleges dominate the ranks in those companies.

The shift in the makeup of the undergraduate population at elite schools is remarkable. More and more colleges are enacting policies to promote the social mobility of those from humble means. They are being celebrated and rewarded for their efforts to diversify their campuses, and by extension, to expand the ranks of the future leaders of America. The doors to elite colleges are increasingly open to lower-­income students. But just how wide open are they? Let us not forget that Princeton, despite introducing this change in financial aid policy, remains one of the thirty­eight universities that have more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent. Lower-­income students may be entering elite colleges in greater numbers now than they were fifty years ago, but these campuses are still bastions of wealth, built on the customs, traditions, and policies that reflect the tastes and habits of the rich.

I believe we should congratulate these colleges and universities on their willingness to innovate. Yet we cannot stop there. We must inquire further. Who are the students admitted to college under these new financial aid regimes? And what happens to them when they arrive on campus? Now that they have gained access to an elite institution, how do they make a home in its hallowed halls?

* * *

That afternoon on the Amherst quad, after milling around and making small talk, I marched along with my classmates into Valentine dining hall. Imagine my surprise when I learned that the young black woman sitting next to me, who had just graduated from a snooty day school and had studied abroad in Spain the previous year, also came from a single­-parent home and was the first in her family to attend college. After discovering our common past, we felt the flush of comfort that comes with shared impoverishment but also shared freedoms. We immediately started telling stories of life before Amherst. We both grew up in segregated neighborhoods where just about everybody was black. The white people we did see fell into three easily identifiable categories: police officers, crackheads and people who had lost their way. Her family, too, struggled to make ends meet from time to time. Both of us had done homework by candlelight, not for atmosphere, but because the power was out.

She and I laughed and commiserated over that desperate search for end­-of­-the­-month money. Soon, a few other students at our table joined in. We were not the only ones, it turned out, who had experienced poverty in our youth but had been exposed to a different world when we went to a prep school. The vacation homes I heard about from some of my new friends during those convocation conversations, I discovered, were not always their own. They often belonged to the families of their wealthy high-school classmates, the ones that we all made nice with for a few glimpses at the good life. I was not alone. I was not the only poor black kid on campus. And I was not the only one who had already been granted access to experiences and places beyond what my family could afford or even knew about. My classmate and I were not as different as I had thought. We were both poor. And privileged.



Excerpted from The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, by Anthony Abraham Jack, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2019 by Anthony Abraham Jack. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Featured Image: Unidentified man photographed in Boston, 2016.

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