Harvard Professor Discusses First-Generation Experience at Elite Colleges

November 30, 2019

Harvard professor Tony Jack visited campus on Nov. 21 to discuss the challenges first-generation low-income college students face and how administrators can ensure they thrive. The event, co-sponsored by the Georgetown Scholarship Program (GSP), Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, The Lecture Fund, and the Georgetown College, was moderated by Marcia Chatelain, an associate professor of history and African American Studies at Georgetown. 

Jack is a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows and assistant professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education. He spoke about his first book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, which was informed by interviews with students at an elite college in the Northeast as well as his experience attending Amherst College as a first-generation student.

In The Privileged Poor, Jack focuses on the differences between lower-income black and Latinx students who are admitted to higher tier boarding schools and those who attend struggling public schools. He calls the first group the “privileged poor” and contrasts their experiences moving to college with those he labels the “doubly disadvantaged.”

Jack offered examples of the privileged poor’s comfort navigating an elite institution’s social and academic expectations as a way to highlight the differences between these two groups. “Who came into school feeling already comfortable with Canada Goose and Moncler, who feels comfortable already knowing that some people can afford a $3,000 dollar jacket, who knows how to go to the Vineyard or the Hamptons?,” Jack said. “But also who knows what office hours are, but not only knows what they are but feels comfortable going to them and who are proactive in doing so?” 

Chatelain said Jack’s research has been vital for understanding that access to education for low-income students is not enough. “Opportunity doesn’t mean stability and if we really want students to succeed at colleges and universities we have to be willing to interrogate some of our practices and we have to be open to change,” she said. 

Jack called on professors to examine what elements of their teaching they have assumed that students understand. Defining office hours as an opportunity for students to get to know their professors would be a good place to start, he said. 

“I hope the larger payoff of defining office hours is it forces college professors to be like, ‘Okay, I’ve been teaching for 20 years, and I’ve never thought to define office hours, and I wonder why, when I look at the profiles of the students who I’ve mentored or I’ve gotten to know, they kind of all look the same.’”

He also urged universities to reach out to parents of first-generation students as well, who may not be prioritized as much as with legacy and donor parents. “If you don’t bring family in on the new rules that govern your campus, all of a sudden first-generation and lower-income college students are going to feel like they’re fighting two battles. One with home, one with school. Because your teachers will tell you, go to office hours, come visit me. But your parents or your guardians will tell you, don’t bother those people.”

De’Ara Graves (NHS ’21) is a member of GSP and the Community Scholars Program. She said the university could do more to facilitate dialogue about the struggles first-generation students face. Awareness and attendance at events surrounding these issues are often contained within the Center for Multicultural Equity and Access and GSP, Graves said. But she appreciated how the event for Jack was attended by a wider audience. 

“I see deans present. I see administrators present, professors, people that are a part of the work that is being done here on campus, so that’s good,” she said. “I’d like to see some more people present like even DeGioia himself maybe. But it’s a work in progress.”

Much of the discussion surrounding first-generation low-income students centers on admission and graduation rates rather than how to support them through the essential moments in between convocation and commencement, Jack said. 

“What’s the difference between having students graduate and having them graduate whole and healthy and ready for the next adventure?” Jack asked. “Often times, we are perfectly okay letting a student graduate but not realizing they are limping across stage and there is no way on God’s green earth I will ever step foot on this campus again. And that to me is part of the true human capital cost of just focusing on access.”

Julia Pinney
Host of Fresh Voices. Former Voices Editor. AMST major. Mediocre yet enthusiastic dancer. Will beat you at Scrabble. Ask me what I'm reading.

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