People walk on the Princeton University campus in Princeton, New Jersey, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.

People walk on the Princeton University campus in Princeton, New Jersey, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 30, 2013.

Once a privilege of the wealthy alone, elite universities across the U.S. became a reality for students from low-income backgrounds beginning in the 1990s. Institutions like Princeton University and Amherst College implemented no-loan policies with the hope that low-income students would enroll and later graduate debt-free; others bolstered their scholarship offerings.

As a result, racial and socioeconomic diversity have increased on many college campuses. But what actually happens once disadvantaged students get to college?

Anthony Abraham Jack, a graduate of Amherst, is one of thousands of students who reaped the benefits of these policies. But the first question he remembers asking himself once he got to Amherst was, “Where are the other poor black kids?” That set the tone for the next four years.

Now, he’s an assistant professor at Harvard University studying what he calls “the privileged poor.” He wrote about his research in The New York Times:

I call lower-income undergraduates who graduated from private high schools the privileged poor. Although they receive excellent educations, my research shows that their ability to navigate the informal social rules that govern elite college life is what really gives them advantages relative to their lower-income peers who did not attend elite high schools, those whom I call the doubly disadvantaged. Although also academically gifted and driven, they enter college with less exposure to the unsaid expectations of elite academic settings. They adjust, but acclimating to the social side of academic life takes time, potentially limiting their access to institutional resources and social networks.

Many of these students have had to choose between buying books and buying food. A new report from the Government Accountability Office shows that in 2016, almost two million low-income students were eligible for the government-supported Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program but did not receive the benefits. Universities around the country have tried to offset this problem by setting up food pantries on campus.

Long breaks during the academic year also pose a problem. Many students who can’t afford to fly home have to pay extra to their university to stay in a dorm or use their meal plan.

How can universities better support low-income students?

Show produced by Danielle Knight. Text by Kathryn Fink.


  • Anthony Abraham Jack Assistant professor of education and junior fellow, Harvard University; author, "The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students"; @tony_jack
  • Melissa "Missy" Foy Executive director, Georgetown Scholars Program, Georgetown University; @missy_f7

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