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Tony Jack on Diversity: 'Access Ain't Inclusion'

October 29, 2019

Colleges and universities must deliberately move from access to inclusion, sociologist Anthony Jack told a crowd of more than 600 people during Northwestern University’s Nancy and Ray Loeschner Leadership Series at Alice Millar Chapel.

“Some universities -- and this country’s president -- have forgotten an old truth: Citizenship is so much more than just being in a place,” said Jack, assistant professor of sociology at Harvard University. “It is being of it, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.”

Jack, the author of  The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, described the challenges facing poor students on rich campuses, from isolation and impostor syndrome to cultural norms that others take for granted.

Jack also urged higher education officials and administrators to address “the entrenched structural inequalities that handicap America’s forgotten neighborhoods and neglected public schools.”

“Our understanding of how poverty and inequality, class, and culture shape college life remains incomplete, and the policies we implement to help students miss the mark,” said Jack. “All too often, university communities do not have as robust conversations about social class as they do about gender and race.”

Jack was the seventh speaker in the Loeschner series, which is sponsored by the School of Education and Social Policy and brings leaders from all disciplines to campus. His talk was preceded by a small dinner and discussion with students and a piano performance by undergraduate Jairui Yui, a dual degree major at SESP and the Bienen School of Music.

Jack’s book, The Privileged Poor documents the overlooked diversity among lower-income undergraduates, which Jack calls the Doubly Disadvantaged—those who enter college from local, typically distressed public high schools—and Privileged Poor—those who do so from boarding, day, and preparatory high schools.

“The Privileged Poor know what life is like below the poverty line,” he wrote. “They also know how the 1 percent learn and live. The Doubly Disadvantaged only know the former.”

Ignoring the divergent experiences between these two groups has been a mistake, he argued and continuing to do so “limits our understanding of the ways in which poverty and inequality shape the lives of today’s undergraduates.”

Drawing on two years of interviews with 103 undergraduates at an elite American university and on his personal experiences as one of the Privileged Poor, Jack shows how powerfully background affects poor students’ chances of success.

A Miami native, Jack received a scholarship to attend Gulliver Preparatory School, an elite private high school in South Florida. He received degrees from Amherst College and Harvard University.

As a scholarship student at Amherst, Jack lacked money to return home on spring break. He planned for “hungry days” or days when the campus cafeterias were closed and worked extra shifts as a gym monitor to help cover the unavoidable costs of staying on campus during breaks.

“We like to think that landing a coveted college spot is a golden ticket for students from disadvantaged backgrounds,” he wrote in a recent essay in The New York Times Magazine. “We think less critically about what happens next. I lived this gap as a first-generation college student. And I returned to it as a first-generation graduate student.”

Jack’s research found that students from low-income families often had to decode a new set of cues and terms like professors’ “office hours” (many didn’t know what they were or how to use them), and  rituals like being invited to get coffee with an instructor (and not knowing whether they were expected to pay).

“Those moments between convocation and commencement is where college life is actually lived,” he wrote. “Admission alone, as it turns out, is not the great equalizer. Just walking through the campus gates unavoidably heightens these students’ awareness and experience of the deep inequalities around them.”

After calling on institutions to initiate change, Jack urged students to also take a stand. ‘Your college is your home. You are its citizenry,” he said. “Do not let the college receive donations in the name of diversity but spend those monies fortifying places where first-gens and other represented groups are made to feel like outsiders.”

When the snapping died down, Jack dared students to “demand as much of Northwestern as it demands of you. Be unapologetic,” he said. “Be bold. Be you.”

Leaders from all fields

The Loeschner lecture was established with a generous gift from SESP alumnus Ray Loeschner (MA57) of Grand Rapids, Michigan, the former president of Olivet University and a trailblazer in higher education. Loeschner, who has attended every leadership lecture since the series began in 2013, also received his PhD from Northwestern in 1962 and served as an assistant football and track coach.

Previous speakers include Mary Daley,  president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Eve Ewing, a writer and sociologist of education at the University of Chicago; alumnus Chuck Friedman, corporate vice president of Microsoft Edge; Mischa Fisher, economist and data scientist; Eva Moskowitz, founder and CEO of Success Academy Charter Schools; and Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America.