LIFEBOUND | Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong
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Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong

Elite Colleges Constantly Tell Low-Income Students That They Do Not Belong

Last Tuesday, the Justice Department charged 50 people with involvement in an elaborate scheme to purchase spots in some of the country’s top schools. The tactics described in the indictment were complex and multipronged, requiring multiple steps of deception and bribery by parents and their co-conspirators to secure their children’s admission to the schools of their choice. The plot purportedly included faking learning disabilitiesusing Photoshopped images to make it seem as if students played sports that they did not actually play, and pretending that students were of different ethnicities in an effort to exploit affirmative-action programs. The alleged scheme was led by a man named William Singer, who called his business venture a “side door” into college. On Tuesday, Singer pleaded guilty to all charges.


The case, rightfully, has set off a wave of conversations about how the wealthy are able to lie and manipulate their way into the country’s elite colleges and universities. But the scandal also provides an opportunity to interrogate how these universities are set up in ways that systematically amplify and exacerbate the class differences between their students. Students from low-income backgrounds receive daily reminders—interpersonal and institutional, symbolic and structural—that they are the ones who do not belong.

To understand the prevalence of wealth at top-tier schools, and how those schools often fail to adequately serve low-income students, it helps to turn to a book called The Privileged Poorby the Harvard University professor Anthony Abraham Jack, published earlier this month. In the book, Jack combines his own journey as a low-income student from Miami who attended selective schools (Amherst College as an undergrad and Harvard for graduate school) and his two-year ethnographic research project, in which he interviewed and followed the lives of low-income students as they navigated life at an unidentified elite school he refers to as “Renowned University.”

In the early pages of the book, Jack outlines how top colleges and universities are and have long been havens of the wealthy. In 2017, a team led by the Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that students coming from families in the top 1 percent—those who make more than $630,000 a year—are 77 times more likely to be admitted to and attend an Ivy League school than students coming from families who make less than $30,000 a year. Furthermore, the study found that 38 elite colleges have more students who come from families in the top 1 percent than students who come from the bottom 60 percent (families making less than $65,000 a year). In other research, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl, of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, have documented how just 14 percent of undergraduates at the most competitive schools—places like Stanford, Princeton, and Columbia—come from families who make up the bottom half of U.S. income distribution.

While many top schools have taken steps to provide more access to disadvantaged students and become more socioeconomically diverse, they remain saturated with wealth. Most low-income students still receive their education elsewhere, disproportionately attending for-profit colleges, community colleges, and less-selective four-year institutions.

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