What awaits low-income students on elite college campuses?

“What happens when disadvantaged students get to college?” WAMU’s Joshua Johnson asked recently on radio program 1A. A new book by Anthony Abraham Jack, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, seeks to shed light on the answer, showing how “getting in is only half the battle.” Johnson sat down with Jack, an assistant professor of education and a junior fellow at Harvard University, and Melissa “Missy” Foy, executive director of the Georgetown Scholars Program (GSP) at Georgetown University, for a critical conversation about how university culture and policies complicate underserved, low-income, and first-generation students’ college experiences—and how schools can better support them.

Social and academic capital on college campuses

Jack described how low-income students who did not attend elite high schools are often “doubly disadvantaged” when they arrive at institutions structured to reward those with greater financial resources and understanding of the “hidden rules and expectations that operate on a college campus both socially and academically.”

Related: Georgetown course helps first-gen students master ‘the hidden curriculum’ >

Students build social capital by networking over meals, joining peers for expensive spring break trips and study abroad experiences, and even making eye contact when shaking a new acquaintance’s hand. Unspoken academic expectations can include understanding the purpose and meaning of “office hours” and taking the initiative to ask professors for deadline extensions, advocacy, and letters of recommendation.

“The problem is when colleges… privilege a certain set of behaviors,” says Jack. “But that is not something that everyone has access to, let alone has had time to practice or master.” The time spent acclimating to these expectations can decrease low-income students’ chance at success, especially if they are grappling with food or housing insecurity and do not know when or how to seek help.

Mastering the hidden curriculum

Asked about Georgetown’s efforts to ensure that all students can access the resources and networks they need to succeed, Foy described the many ways GSP supports the 650 predominantly first-generation and low-income undergraduate students in its program. To help demystify academe’s unspoken expectations, GSP offers a one-credit course called “Mastering the Hidden Curriculum,” which articulates the opportunities and challenges faced by first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students; encourages conversations about power and inequality; and connects students with resources to support their success.

GSP—whose participants have a 96 percent graduation rate, compared with 30 percent nationally among first-generation students—also offers students a community of mentors and embedded ambassadors, including a first-generation faculty and staff initiative. In addition, Georgetown supports students through the Hoya Hub food pantry, grocery grants, medical assistance, counseling services, winter coats, flights home to visit family, and an array of other programming.

Related: Georgetown Scholars Program helps low-income students build professional wardrobes >

How can universities help?

Ultimately, Foy says, “we have to solve poverty in our country.” But in the absence of such sweeping change, Foy says schools have a responsibility to develop programs that address known hurdles, advocate for underserved students, and support community networks that make campuses more inclusive. “I really would like the onus to be on the university’s shoulders, and I think more schools can follow in our footsteps,” she says.

Jack says all higher education leaders must take an honest look at their campuses without shying away, and conduct more robust research on obstacles to student success, such as housing and food insecurity. “We need to actually know what problems our students are facing if we’re going to help them through it,” says Jack.

Listen to the full interview, featuring GSP Executive Director Missy Foy at the 15-minute mark:


Georgetown is committed to ensuring that all students have the resources and support they need to succeed. The Georgetown Scholars Program provides programmatic support to more than 650 undergraduates, and the 50-year-old Community Scholars Program prepares its multicultural cohort of first-generation college students for success with a five-week academic summer program and ongoing support. The Regents Science Scholars Program further expands opportunities for students from traditionally underserved communities pursuing studies in the sciences.

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