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October 2019

Tony Jack: Access Ain't Inclusion

Matt Stokes Photography

On his first day at Amherst, Tony Jack wondered to himself, “Where are the other poor black students?” That question, he said, eventually led him to write “The Privileged Poor – How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students,” published earlier this year by Harvard University Press. Along the way he graduated with honors from Amherst in 2007, then earned a Ph.D. in sociology at Harvard, where he is now a Junior Fellow of the Society of Fellows and an assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education.  

Professor Anthony A. Jack is also a member of the Board of Scholarship Plus, which was one of the sponsors of his appearance in mid-October in a sleekly designed and spacious meeting room at Microsoft’s offices near Times Square. The other hosts were the Amherst Alumni Association of NY and HOLA, Microsoft’s Hispanic/Latinx Organization of Leaders in Action. 

In welcoming Professor Jack before an audience that included many Scholarship Plus alums and supporters, Kate Fenneman Stokes, our executive director, cited a core tenet of his work and what was to be a key idea of the evening: “Access is not inclusion.” She then introduced the event’s moderator, Philomina Kane, Princeton ’17, recalling that from the first time that Philomina had met with Scholarship Plus interviewers during the selection process, everyone had been “blown away by her drive, her intelligence, her warmth.” Kate said that Philomina is now an entrepreneur in the areas of natural hair and fashion, with a YouTube channel that has 160,000 subscribers; next Fall she will begin a Master’s degree program in Public Health at Columbia. She described Dr. Jack’s book as “a huge head-turner.”

Professor Jack told the attentive audience of growing up in Florida in a family where he “knew the reality that sometimes there was more month than money.” A scholarship allowed him to spend his senior high school year at a selective school in Miami, a pattern similar to that of other – but, crucially, not all – students from backgrounds of poverty who then went to elite colleges.

On average, Professor Jack said, roughly 50 percent of black students at selective colleges are alumni of elite boarding and day schools, private or public – essentially the same schools that have been feeding students to these colleges for generations. As a result of their elite secondary education, they already know about how to work what Dr. Jack called “the hidden curriculum.”  But for those poor students who have not come from selective high schools – “doubly disadvantaged,” in Dr. Jack’s term – some of the keys to college success can be invisible.  

In a system where getting professors to know you is crucial to recommendation letters, for example, many low-income students do not already know that the term “office hours” refers to times that professors reserve for seeing students, not for doing their own academic work. Even when the term has been deciphered, there may still be challenges; “When you feel that only people with Canada Goose jackets can go to office hours,” Dr. Jack said, “that’s a problem.”  And, he recalled, “The first time I heard the word ‘Fellowship’ at Amherst, I thought we were going to church.”

Another Amherst memory was of his first March on campus. When Spring Break came, the dining halls, like those of most schools, shut down. Students who were unable to head out on vacations or to return home were confronted with locked doors and the sight of chairs stacked atop dining tables for the duration. Thanks in large part to his efforts, by his junior year the Amherst dining halls remained open during the break.

Dr. Jack repeatedly returned to what he called “the distinction between the privileged poor and the doubly disadvantaged” in their experiences of elite colleges. The privileged poor who are admitted to selective colleges, he said, have gone to high schools like Exeter and Andover.  The doubly disadvantaged have gone to underserved public schools. They are hobbled by “the difference between what private schools are,” he said, “and what public schools can’t possibly be.” What he wanted to talk about in his book, he said, was “How class amplified differences in ways that cut across racial groups.”

In colleges, he said, “Access is who you admit. Inclusion is everything that happens after. It’s the step beyond belonging – it’s accessing all the services that admission letter grants you.”

His book contains both analysis and recommendations for what schools should be doing. “The activism came after the research,” he said. “I felt I owed it to the students who talked to me.”  

His advice to students? “Never, ever, be afraid to ask for help,” he said. “Asking for help is a sign of strength. When you come to the edge of your understanding, it’s the brave thing to do.”

Words by Michael J. Leahy

Photographs by Matt Stokes Photography

A collaboration with the Amherst Alumni Association of NY made for some meaningful reunions of old friends.

 Graduates of Amherst College ranging from the Class of 1955 to 2019.

Scholarship Plus Executive Director Kate Fenneman Stokes (left) introduces Professor Jack to the moderator — SPlus and Princeton alumna, Philomina (right).

Roger Lehecka, the founder of the trailblazing college success program Double Discovery, gets his copy of The Privileged Poor signed.

 Scholarship Plus junior, Tasmia, meets Professor Jack.

Professor Jack (center) flanked by Kate and Scholarship Plus' Senior Director, Anna Antoniak.

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