Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students

reviewed by Christina Wright Fields - May 30, 2019

coverTitle: The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students
Author(s): Anthony Abraham
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674976894, Pages: 288, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

Pursuing an undergraduate degree often presents a myriad of difficulties, particularly for students from low-income backgrounds at Predominately White Institutions. The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students provides crucial insight and a much-needed perspective in understanding how economically disadvantaged students experience postsecondary education at elite colleges. Anthony Abraham Jack shares the lived experiences of these students by highlighting how they entered, navigated, and persisted within the institutions. Through interviews, students share narratives about the barriers to academic success, noting how some obstacles were embedded within the campus infrastructure. Lastly, they discuss the challenges to adapt and persevere while being true to their authentic selves in college.

Considering that higher education reflects the conditions of society, groups or individuals who are marginalized on a broader level generally continue to be marginalized in educational settings. Schools are “shaped by cultural practices and values and reflect the norms of the society for which they have been developed” (Hollins, 1996, p. 31). Additionally, school’s primary purpose is the reproduction of culture, more specifically the replication of the dominant culture. Jack notes that “lower-income students may be entering elite colleges in greater numbers now than they were fifty years ago, but these campuses are still bastions of wealth built on the customs, traditions, and policies that reflect the tastes and habits of the rich” (p. 8).

Schooling further perpetuates hegemony by allowing the dominant culture to capitalize on its ideologies, knowledge, language, behaviors, and values through the passive acknowledgement of minority groups. The author’s findings validate how the dominant culture’s influence is espoused on most college campuses through demographics, programs, policies, or overall culture. Higher education institutions can unintentionally perpetuate institutional oppression or inequalities that remind economically disadvantaged students of their pre-existing class differences, greatly impacting their collegiate experiences.

Jack identifies two distinct economically disadvantaged student groups, the Privileged Poor and Doubly Disadvantaged. Some differences can be noted between these social classifications. The Privileged Poor previously attended private high schools and have “the privilege of an early introduction to the world they will enter in college” (p. 11). They have acquired the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in college and earn their degrees. Essentially, the Privileged Poor possess the cultural capital that the dominant group values, which potentially allows them to have greater access and success at their elite colleges. The Doubly Disadvantaged, on the other hand, are identified as “both poor and unfamiliar with this new world [postsecondary education]” because they did not attend preparatory schools before college, but rather public high schools (p. 11). The Doubly Disadvantaged typically lack in cultural capital, or knowledge of how the system works, and  social capital, or access to resources within their important social networks.

Jack demonstrates through students’ personal narratives how cultural capital is a prerequisite for upward mobility, one that is explicitly viewed through academic achievement and implicitly viewed through role socialization. Students share their firsthand encounters with power, privilege, and oppression, which were often heightened through classroom learning, campus employment, programs, events, and dining, all fundamental components of traditional college life. For example, one student describes the need to obtain higher-paying student jobs cleaning residence hall bathrooms, which caused others to perceive them as “the help” or a servant. This experience served as a subtle reminder of the student’s inferior status and reminded them of the class stratification that existed on their campus.

Schools’ cultural environments create and perpetuate prestige, social standing, and evaluations based on the degree to which students possess dominant cultural capital (Farkas, Grobe, Sheehan, & Shuan, 1990). The Privileged Poor and Doubly Disadvantaged students  navigated an amalgamation of politics within their home life, academic programs and departments, and campus. The students developed an increased awareness of their identities, their corresponding privileges or lack of privileges, and the overall impact of their intersectionalities. Patricia Gurin suggests that higher education learning environments introduce students to complex and diverse perspectives and relationships, which could deeply affect their development and educational outcomes (Cole, 2007).

We have heard the expression “until you walk a mile in my shoes, you will not understand my story”; this book allows readers to explore economically disadvantaged students’ experiences at elite colleges, to understand not only their journeys but also their unique stories. Jack examines ways in which the “cultural skills each student brings to college collide with the very blunt reality of how much money they have” (p. 22). Oftentimes individuals from historically marginalized backgrounds have to validate their existence or acknowledge their relevance in higher education. Students’ educational experiences are shaped by societal interactions (e.g., schooling) as well as their own interpretations of, and responses to, these experiences (Ogbu, 2004). We have a shared responsibility as educators, student affairs practitioners, and administrators to help students deconstruct and process their journey.

Jack challenges readers to actively seek out and understand the alternative experiences of economically disadvantaged students: those meanings, perspectives, experiences, and values different from the dominant culture or perceived norm. Readers are encouraged to not assume that everyone experiences postsecondary education in the same way and to become aware of the hidden curriculum experienced by economically disadvantaged students. As higher education institutions continue to increase the access of historically marginalized students, campuses must also develop a critical consciousness in which individuals learn “about the process of privileging/normalizing and marginalizing/othering, but also unlearning what one had previously learned is ‘normal’ and normative” (Kumashiro, 2000, pp. 36–37). Post-secondary education institutions should reexamine how they can espouse welcoming and inclusive environments, rather than those that privilege some and limit others.



Cole, D. (2007). Do interracial interactions matter? An Examination of student-faculty contact and intellectual self-concept. The Journal of Higher Education, 78(3), 249–281.

Farkas, G., Grobe, R. P., Sheehan, D., & Shuan, Y. (1990). Cultural resources and school

success: Gender, ethnicity, and poverty groups within an urban school district. American

Sociological Review, 55(1), 127–142.

Hollins, E. (1996). Culture in school learning: Revealing the deep meaning. Mahwah, NJ:


Kumashiro, K. K. (2000). Toward a theory of anti-oppressive education. Review of

Educational research, 70(1), 25–53.

Ogbu, J. U. (2004). Collective identity and the burden of “acting White” in Black history,

community, and education. The Urban Review, 36(1), 1–35.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 30, 2019
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22825, Date Accessed: 12/8/2021 11:15:33 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Christina Wright Fields
    Marist College
    E-mail Author
    CHRISTINA WRIGHT FIELDS, Ph.D. is a higher education scholar whose research agenda focuses on historically marginalized students’ experiences both in K-12 and postsecondary education contexts, issues pertinent to student access and academic success, social justice and activism, and the influence of teacher and student cultural identities within the classroom. Fields possesses over a decade of experience with supervising student and professional staff, developing student affairs and academic affairs partnerships, overseeing college preparation programs, creating innovative multicultural and international initiatives, and developing cultural competency courses and workshops. Fields is affiliated with and highly involved in numerous professional associations in higher education and teacher education including Association for Study of Higher Education (ASHE), Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education (NASPA), American College Personnel (ACPA), New York Association of Teacher Educators (NYSATE) and New York Association for Colleges of Teacher Education (NYACTE). She has presented numerous research papers, workshops, and roundtables nationally at ASHE, NASPA, ACPA, American Education Research Association (AERA), and National Council on Race & Ethnicity (NCORE) conferences. Fields has been recognized by the NASPA’s Region II for Distinguished Excellence in Diversity award, ACPA Supporting Latino/a Student Success Award, and NASPA’s African American Knowledge KUUMBA New Professionals Award.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue