Anthony Jack

The Case for Economic Affirmative Action

Air Date: March 4, 2019

Harvard Professor of Education Anthony Jack discusses his new book “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students.”


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Heffner your host on The Open Mind. Today I’m delighted to welcome to the broadcast Anthony Jack, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a fellow former resident of Mather House. Jack’s research documents the overlooked diversity among lower income undergraduates, the doubly-disadvantaged, those who enter college from local, typically distressed public high schools, and the privileged poor, his term for those who do so from boarding day and prep schools. Jack is the author of the new Harvard University Press title, “The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Poor Students.” He writes, “The experiences of low-income undergraduates are not just a product of their family background and economic circumstance. Academic life is inherently social. Focusing solely on grades or graduation rates obscures that fact. Imagine the culture shock that some lower income students experience navigating this hidden curriculum.” Anthony, Tony as I know you. It’s a privilege to see you and to be with you here today.

JACK: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: The essence of your work reflects the reality of elite higher ed institutions. How did your own experience, which is really the genesis of this, when you transitioned from a public school to a private school for your senior year, inform the way you tackled this project…

JACK: I mean. You see, it’s the foundation for it. When I, so, I’m not only a public school kid, I’m a Head Start kid. Right? So I got my start a on a government program, Head Start, was able to go to a local public school, went Pre-K through 11th grade public school.

I played football in high school and my coach, wanted athlete-students, not student athletes and I was like, I don’t need football to go to college. I’m going regardless. And that always caused tension. I didn’t need him for it. And when I had to have surgery after an injury in a game, they kicked me off the team and I was like, well, I still want to play my senior year. It was my, it was my outlet, my way of just like not doing just homework. And so I ended up going to Gulliver Prep in Miami and that’s when I experienced the biggest culture shock I ever had in my life, to go from even a good public school as Coral Gables was, in the IB program, but then to go to Gulliver where I went from my smallest class at Gables was even with Theory of Knowledge, with IB was like 35 students to my, to my smallest class being three students, right?

We had teachers who had PhDs. We had classrooms that were on average 12 students. We had the resources; we had two different computer labs. We had two different everything. Like they had a pool, they had everything. So many resources. And teachers couldn’t leave from 3:06 to 4:10 every day. I think it was the exact time because they had mandatory office hours. I was in a whole other world, whereas at Gables teachers left at 2:30, at Gulliver it was built into the culture and the structure of the school. Teachers did not leave. They invested an hour of their day, every day, to students answering any kind of questions. The one of the biggest differences though was when I applied to college, I didn’t even have to fold up the application. I just filled it out and dropped it off at their desk. My guidance counselor had seven or eight other students who, who he had to help through the college process. When I got to Amherst, Amherst College was where I entered in 2003, I saw more of Gulliver there than I expected. I saw similar people. I saw similar interactions between the faculty. I saw similar, just contact, like high contact, high touch-points between faculty, deans and administrators and staff. What I did not expect to find was I asked myself the, and I opened the book with this question. I said, where are the other poor black people? I really thought I was the only one because whereas at Gulliver, I knew everybody had money, the black folks that were there did not. When I got to Amherst a lot of the other black students I thought had money because they talked about going to Andover and Exeter. They talked about going to boarding schools and private schools and flying on private jets, and then I found out that they, that some of those students were just like me, were first in their family to go to college, received the Pell Grant, did not come from money at all, but they got access to these private schools that gave them access to different peoples and different experiences, like studying abroad for an entire year in Spain so they can learn the language. And I was just like. So own, my individual experience was actually a common thing. When I got to graduate school no one was talking about that. No one was talking about Prep for Prep, A Better Chance, TEAK, the Wight Foundation, Oliver Scholars. Nobody was talking about how these programs have produced people like Deval Patrick for over 50 years and so I started to write about it and that just got me down on this path. I’m like, oh, well they totally ignore not just me but half my classmates because what I discovered is that on average 50 percent of your poor students, poorest black students at elite colleges actually graduate from boarding day and preparatory high schools.

HEFFNER: And so that is the unique share that we talked about from the outset, which is that people of color are not representative, but most students in general are not representative of the diversity of socioeconomic status and not just an elite.

JACK: Right.

HEFFNER: How has the climate of need-blind admissions impacted the way you see this issue? I myself have been a proponent as the beneficiary of aid for an economics-based affirmative action, which might actually help people of color more than the present system.

JACK: So yes and no. I mean need-blind, and I hope we can also talk about that 1.8 billion dollar gift that Bloomberg gave to

HEFFNER: Johns Hopkins.

JACK: Johns Hopkins, to make them be need-blind going forward. Need-blind ushered in a way of doing financial aid that helped many families because they were able to say we don’t care what you can and cannot pay if you can make it in, you can make it in. And we got, essentially we have your back, financially at least on scholarship dollars and grant dollars and things like that. The problem with that on one hand is access and inclusion are two different things, right? Granting students aid and grand students access to institutions who are able to make it past the admissions office. That’s one goal. Making them feel included or rather, making them feel as members of the community that’s a totally separate thing that we have quite frankly failed in doing so for many years.

And then also not just need blind for the no loan financial aid policies at Princeton ushered in, in 1998 was a doubling down on like we want access, we want to increase access, we’re going to say zero family contribution. We’re going to say, we’re going to replace all loans with grants and scholarships and that to me is an even bigger stuff. But again, that only works on that only addresses one problem, the financial barrier to get in. But there are many more things that students face once they get in.

HEFFNER: Well that’s what you talk about; you say here, “The differences I observe in my research,” your research, “highlight how unequal opportunities, constrained disadvantaged groups before and during college to close this gap.” And this sounds pretty lofty, but spell it out for me, Tony, “we must address the entrenched structural inequalities that plague America’s forgotten neighborhoods and neglected public schools.”

JACK: Yes. I mean I’m a sociologist. And to think that, just getting, just giving students like a shot of cultural capital, like taking them to the movies or taking them to the museum or giving them access to like high brow culture is going to give them access to schools. No, that’s not what we need. The fact that so many of these problems are the product of segregation, joblessness, the disinvestment in America center cities and the hollowing out of America’s breadbasket. When you think about the ways in which these problems are place-based, when you think about students going to college if they make it at all. So let’s talk about the students who are actually in college, that 2am phone call that students from disadvantaged urban centers here are not just like, oh, so and so we just had a baby and we just want to let you know the great news is oftentimes somebody is more of a loss of life that they’re celebrating. Like we have to deal with gang violence. We have to deal with disruptions in homes. So many of our students have to know a version of the immigrant story where they send remittances home to their family and that’s one of the reasons why they have to do so much. Right. So when you think about how joblessness and segregation and crime and disadvantage are nestled in our place-base, you began to understand that these students have additional burdens that they have to bear. So it’s not only studying for that exam was also worries about the problems back home, but we also shouldn’t think this is like an inner-city problem. What about those students from the hollows of West Virginia? What about the loss of mining jobs in the last, and the growing opioid epidemic in rural areas, these students bring that with them to college as well.

They have to deal with so much that we are not investing in as a nation to college with them. So they’re worrying about trying to decipher what you know, s and one and s and 2 reactions in organic chemistry as well as wondering who, who is taking care of somebody at home, who was also doing the checking in who was doing x, y, and z. those are things that when I talk about the entrenched problems and Americans neighborhoods on the one hand, but let’s not forget the problems in the neighborhoods often become school problems, the gang violence, the turf wars, the lack of investment, the overcrowded schools, the lack of resources for anything. For example, I remember in elementary and middle school going on field trips to the local zoo, to the local park, hell even to the library. Today, schools can’t even afford to do that.

We’re talking about schools that give extra credit for brand, for extra credit, the students whose parents bring it into reams of paper so they can actually print assignments, right? This is what I’m talking about when we’re talking about the entrenched problems in America’s forgotten neighborhoods and even more forgotten schools. These are the obstacles that our students have to overcome to make it into college let alone an elite college like a Yale or Princeton or Harvard that then they must contend with once they actually get there.

HEFFNER: We recently hosted former secretary of education, Arne Duncan. Give us a tutorial. What can be instructive? What can we teach? You know, clearly there were failures of that tenure and there may have been some assets, some successes, but eight years of a president who at least professed to want to advance the pluralistic capacity of the country, to advance the livelihoods of people across geography, across race, across religion. What happened?

JACK: The promise of neighborhood, a promising approach never really took off. Right? We focused so much on, on improving test scores and the race to the top and improving how students perform on paper that a lot of, and it’s not just the past eight years, like very few people think about neighborhood policy as school policy or as education policy, right? You cannot think about, you cannot and people in cities know this. You can give, so some programs like to give, to answer your question, I’ll give you an example. Some programs like to give us a laptop at high school. Right? So like we have a laptop for you so you can have access to the Internet. How many of those students get robbed on the way home? Knowing that that school gives out $1,500 laptops. How many people actually can make it, in a year, can make it home and back to school every day without having to run, fight, or actually get a actually lose that laptop. Those are the…

HEFFNER: Or have the Internet back home.

JACK: Yeah. Well let’s just, let’s make it; let’s make it take it. Take it home first. Right? So we, that’s what I mean when we have to think about the way in which these neighborhood context amplify the inequalities, especially off racial and ethnic minorities. We just have to think about that. If we don’t, we fail. And so I think in the last, what we’ve seen is like the promise, so people often say that the Harlem Children’s Zone could have been a model. And that was actually the model through which I think the hall of the promise and that promise neighborhoods program was, was built on, but how can we flood geographic areas with that much, that many resources and actually be scalable across the country. It’s not something that we have done. Pat Sharkey, who was a sociologist here at NYU, he was like to tackle durable inequalities we need durable investments, right? We can’t do these one-off programs and think that is going to overcome generational transmission of poverty and inequality that our children inherit. We need those blockbusters, like those blockbusting super programs that actually can change it’s going to take time to change. This is not something that you can do in a five-year period or even a 10-year period. We’re talking about something, you know, generational.

HEFFNER: So do you think Secretary Duncan is just not really willing to concede that you need multiple Bloomberg’s investment in cities from Tulsa and Wichita to Chicago, New York, that that is the material that is needed, an investment, from what has been divested.

JACK: I mean, we need it. We absolutely do need it. And as much as I was saying like, yes, we need to worry about, we need to invest in increase in test scores and yes, we need to worry about increasing, both proficiency and, and excelling and in creating more AP and IB courses across our public schools and not just the really, really wealthy ones. And yes, we need more opportunities to do, I think he said like the, the Pre-K, the Pre-K through 14 type of model that he wants, that he wants to see the US adopt. Yes, we need that. But we also need to realize that students don’t, are not in school all the time. They have a home.

HEFFNER: So there’s a logistical, financial challenge and the practical challenge and then a cultural and political challenge. Yeah. I wish you advise Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer going forward to talk to them about how they can assure the President’s interest in gang violence in a way that can be constructive so that you take the money he wants to allocate for the border and say, let’s bring that to coastal border communities and neighborhoods and school buildings and teachers. So I hope that you have that advisory role next year, my friend.

JACK: (Laughs)

HEFFNER: Okay. Professor, now that I can call you Professor. In the meantime, there’s a cultural challenge and that is how do you get your message to resonate in all of those disparate places where there was a concern about national imposition of an agenda on local neighborhoods during the Obama Administration’s tenure?

JACK: Yeah. That is when you talk about, because some people, when you think about the attachment to, I think also wanting to. Arne Duncan says like some jobs are gone, right? The way in which this country is going, the way in which the world is going, some jobs are have, have a shelf life right now. They’re expiring. How do we, how do we reframe the message of not saying you all are dinosaurs and you are no longer relevant, but how do you actually make that translation? How do you actually make that jump to invest in, to have, you’d have similar, similar jobs have similar impact, but it’s with renewable energy. How do we actually get students to get young people not to feel as if they’re being attacked because their jobs are the jobs that they have known for generations are leaving.

How do we not make that into something that is like, what do you call it, feeling their, like resentment towards a national agenda. Like, Oh, you want to do wind farms and you want to do all this stuff? What you’re really saying is, I’m taking away jobs from you. I’m taking me the job that you used to love. You know, there are no longer, they’re no longer jobs for coal miners. Now you have to do this. How do we change? How do we is it is a matter of reframing. It’s also a matter of education.

HEFFNER: Double whammy if you will, for those communities when you wanted to impose both that philosophy and the stringent testing, which turned out to really offend people. Not in conservative or liberal in many places in America. But you’re not an advocate of the testing being the criteria through which we judge this next generation of how education is successful or not successful, but rather the social intelligence that’s required to keep people in school and then employed and have positive productive lives.

JACK: I mean we need some form of assessment. Like in general, I won’t be like a totally of assessment free and, and like and that we need some form of assessment, but when it’s so much of a high stakes game and we’re not addressing the structural inequalities that make certain communities off the top score, 20, 25, 30, 50 points higher than someone on any kind of frame because of all the other conditions that we have totally abandoned like the, the, the rise in joblessness in more than just the urban centers. The way in which we are divesting from support services like WIC and food stamps and all kinds of things like that that actually were like Americans last like vestige of a safety net. Like all of those programs that give people basic needs or help people meet basic needs let alone kind of like slow the growth of the problems that we face and we expect students to perform exactly the same on standardized test. No, but this also gets to your other part of your question about like what metrics should we use for college admissions and is need- base, I’m sorry, is an economic model what we need. The problem with just economic model is it can easily ignore all the things that we’ve been talking about. Packaged to quote Pat again, a black family in America, sorry, a white family in America that makes $30,000 a year, lives in, has the advantage of a neighborhood of a black family that makes almost $100. Think about that for a second. Because of the legacy of redlining blockbusting and just straight straight-up racism where people live is so influenced by race and then by virtue of where you live, the resources that you have access to.

How can we use just an economic model if we don’t take into consideration the legacy of racism in this country?

HEFFNER: It’s a great point, Tony. I only submit this to you wondering whether or not those issues are ones that the colleges can tackle, but the way to get the public on board.

JACK: Absolutely. I see what you’re saying. On that front, it is more palatable to the, to the general populace to focus on it plays into the American dream narrative, right? It plays that people who may have not been given everything are pulling themselves up, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and they’re working hard and those are the people who we should reward. People who are rewarded just by virtue of their race or their gender or their sexuality, that’s when Americans like pull up stakes and like, I’m not voting, I’m not in favor for this. I’m not going to vote for this, but class is something. Social class is something that we at once have a hard time talking about, but also have an easier time connecting to across like across the board. Right? In different in different ways.

HEFFNER: If you address it through an economic affirmative action model, that is, that is in effect the, the, you know, no boundaries. Then can the colleges themselves take the leadership to address some of the specific concerns you have about once the disadvantaged poor get to undergraduate institutions.

JACK: I think colleges can go a long way in not only diversifying their campuses, but making sure that once students get there that is not just those in the top 10 percent who feel as if it’s their own university.


JACK: There are so many things that colleges can do to ensure that even if you are need-blind and no loan, that you are not putting up barriers to students once they get to campus because the real sound bites and all the attention and all the New York Times op-eds and the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post really focuses on who is getting in and who isn’t.

HEFFNER: That’s why I thought that the administration was right and this is a pretty contrary take maybe that you agree with, to put restrictions on the final clubs if they were discriminating.

JACK: I think they were trying to address two things with the decision to ban the finals clubs. It was, on one hand it was an investigation, and this is what colleges across the country were doing is yes, they’re elitism, are we contributing to a culture in which students from the wealthiest backgrounds are the most connected backgrounds or having a outsize effect on the undergraduate community. Right. But then on the other hand, it was also how do we address, the, once we actually have the data on sexual assault and sexual harassment among the student body, how do we actually create a system in which we’re not, how do we address that issue of sexual assault on college campuses and different things like that. And so everybody was feeling a pressure to investigate and I think, and even though they should’ve been doing this a long time ago to address issues of sexual assault and, elitism, I think the, the way in which he did it was kind of converged. I, the thing is, as a sociologist, it’s interesting because I had one say, I understand the impetus behind it, but we use a machete when we renewed a scalpel. Right? Did the decision to completely ban actually do what we should have done when I actually, but also the other hand, we also know that if you are from a disadvantaged background and you make it into a sorority, fraternity, final clubs or secret society, you now have access to unbelievable resources that can aid your mobility after college, let alone your experiences therein. So it’s very interesting that you have it, you can make an argument on both sides. I think the administration, there are other things that I think the administration could have done in other universities as a whole. Should you band fraternity after certain incidents or should you bring them under closer scrutiny, and right that’s something that we are facing across the country.

28:44 HEFFNER: When it comes to this suit against Harvard, which is pretty much malarkey to me. How can they respond to this suit against their admissions practices in a way that’s going to reassert their prerogative to give enfranchisement and opportunity to the privileged poor?

JACK: Yeah. This suit has kept me up at night because it reminds me of something I remember reading, I’m just like, I wish we could go beyond what was legally defensible and do it was morally right and the fact that this suit was even allowed to be brought in under the guise of which it was, it really pisses me off because for one, you’re using Asian Americans as like…

HEFFNER: Trojan horse,

JACK: Yeah, Trojan horse, lumping all Asians together, knowing that you’re not talking about people from Laos, you’re not talking about people from Cambodia. You’re talking about a, you’re, even. There’s a whole bunch of stuff. I just, I hated about it. I love Jennifer Lee at Columbia, really like pushing us. I was like, how like when you talking about Asian Americans, that’s a very diverse group and you are not even issue as a class. I think what this suit is going to force people to do, and one thing I’m scared about is always saying diversity as a good, as something that makes quite frankly just, our white students better. And having to justify it even more away from the original intent to this now diversity paradigm that we find ourselves in. And so I actually don’t know what we are going to do. There are some people who are proponents of using first generation student status as a way of doing it, which parallels the economic version, the economic approach that, that you spoke about earlier, it still does not pay attention to or take into account all the kind of a structural inequalities that we talked about. Some people are advocating for a similar, more like just class-based measures of different have different tiers. I actually don’t know and it depends on how narrowly defined the judges are going to be in their decision.

HEFFNER: At the end of the day, they’re attempting to legitimize this notion of reverse racism. That’s what it’s about. It’s about, is it not?

JACK: I think it’s more sinister than that. I think was just saying like who’s deserving of these institutions, period.

HEFFNER: Well, the most sinister would be a dystopia of or not even a dystopia, a, a time machine back to. Yeah. The Civil War era.

JACK: So no one’s arguing against legacy admission. No one is arguing against athletes getting preferences. No one is arguing against a lot of stuff that.

HEFFNER: They didn’t even take, the drastic steps that were required really, that need to be instituted. What are they suing for? Let’s take deep breaths, Tony, thank you for being with me today.

JACK: Thank you for having me.

HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time for thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind. Please visit The Open Mind website at to view this program online or to access over 1,500 other interviews and do check us out on Twitter and Facebook @OpenMindTV for updates on future programming.