Access is just the beginning: In Georgetown visit, author Anthony Jack shares challenges that less-privileged students face at elite universities

How can we all take part in creating a more equitable space for our low-income and first-generation students at Georgetown?

That’s the question Roberto Hidalgo (C’22), student and Georgetown Scholars Program member, posed in introducing a campus conversation this week between Marcia Chatelain, Ph.D., Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor of history and African American studies at Georgetown, and Anthony “Tony” Jack, Ph.D., assistant professor of education at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.

Chatelain described the book—which focuses on the challenges that less-privileged students face once they arrive at top colleges, and the work schools must do to help these students thrive—as one that “change[d] the game” by making readers “assess where we’ve been and inspiring us to move forward in really positive directions.”

Related: What awaits low-income students on elite college campuses? >

The limits of traditional college diversity efforts

Of particular importance, Jack noted, is recognizing the difference between access and inclusion. Top colleges and universities historically have diversified by admitting “the privileged poor”: minority and low-income students disproportionately from elite private schools, he said. These students have access to information and preparation not available to the “doubly disadvantaged,” minority and low-income students from underfunded public schools, who arrive on campus without the “cultural capital” that helps navigate elite spaces. 

Jack uses the concept of “office hours” to illustrate the type of information gap that can meaningfully affect a student’s ability to thrive in college. Students whose parents attended college and those from elite private schools tend to arrive on campus understanding “office hours” as an opportunity to get guidance from and develop relationships with professors. But if the concept is not explained to students who don’t arrive with that knowledge, and if they aren’t encouraged to take advantage of this benefit, a critical source of support and opportunity closes off to them.

Because top colleges and universities have “hedged their bets” by relying more heavily on the privileged poor to diversify their campuses, they haven’t invested sufficiently in ensuring doubly disadvantaged students have the resources and support necessary to thrive, according to Jack. “Getting access [via admission and financial aid] doesn’t mean getting access to the resources of the place,” he said, lauding Georgetown’s  “Mastering the Hidden Curriculum” course as the type of effort that helps bridge the gap.

Making change

When Chatelain—a Mastering the Hidden Curriculum instructor—asked Jack what institutions need to do to make the necessary change, he returned to the example of office hours, noting that defining office hours forces university officials to consider the implications of not having done so in the past, particularly as it relates to “how much we take for granted that families know.” He said it’s critical to help families understand the “rules” of college campuses so that students get consistent guidance as they navigate college life. 

Related: How can colleges better support students living ‘in poverty’s long shadow’? >

He also noted the importance of increasing diversity among faculty and staff in ensuring that colleges have the “cultural competency” to support students from a wide range of backgrounds, as well as understanding “the difference between having students graduate and having them graduate healthy and happy and ready for the next adventure.” Colleges tend to disproportionately focus on “who gets in and who gets out”—as expressed through admissions and graduation data—rather than the “overlooked moments” in students’ lives that can affect their happiness and mental health.

Corey Stewart (F’15), director of outreach and engagement for the Georgetown Scholars Program, which sponsored the event, called the conversation “timely and engaging” and thanked Chatelain and Jack for “lending their expertise on how Georgetown, and other institutions of higher education, can more holistically serve first-generation and low-income students.”

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