Within academia, not all poor people are created equal. That, in a sentence, is the theme of Anthony Abraham Jack’s engaging short book The Privileged Poor. Jack argues that lower-income students, like “students of color,” in elite American universities are often analyzed as though they were a unitary, cohesive block—but that doing so ignores high levels of diversity within these groups. Specifically, Jack contends that poor students in top colleges fall into two distinct groups. There are the Doubly Disadvantaged (DD), who attended struggling high schools in their disadvantaged big-city neighborhoods or rural towns before matriculating to Harvard or Michigan. And there are the Privileged Poor (PP), who received “upward mobility” scholarships to select boarding or day schools prior to college.
Jack points out that the PP are a sizable group; remarkably, 50 percent of lower-income minority students who attend “highly selective” U.S. universities graduated from selective prep schools. He argues convincingly that these students do better in college than “DD” students. In contrast to the DD, the PP tend not to be “fazed by the campus culture or their wealthier peers.” After two to four years of socialization in elite prep schools, they usually feel academically and socially prepared for university. Talking with Jack, many describe their freshman year at the institution he labels “Renowned University” (Yale?) as “fifth year” or a predictable “next step.”