As recently as this past spring, students at Harvard College who needed free tickets to the Freshman Formal had to wait in a separate line while their peers with full-priced tickets looked on. And until last March, undergraduate dining halls closed for spring break on the assumption that all students left, or could afford to leave, campus for the week.
While Harvard and other prestigious universities have instituted admissions policies designed to attract students from lower-income backgrounds, there is less talk about how to provide for these students’ success once they enroll. As Anthony Jack, a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology and a doctoral fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality & Social Policy, points out, for all the good intentions behind these changes, college policies have not kept pace with the increasingly diverse classes of students who enter their gates.
As Jack sees it, separate lines to the Freshman Formal and dining hall closures during spring break are just two of the many examples of how “things on campus are gendered, raced, and classed” at elite colleges across the nation. “We don’t interrogate them as seriously as we do when it comes to admitting more diverse classes.” Jack’s research aims to correct this gap between admissions policies and college practices in the United States. The impact of his research on elite higher education has already taken root at Harvard through the efforts of an engaged administration: now, students can print their tickets to formals at home and, beginning last March, several dining halls remained open for those who couldn’t leave for the week, or simply chose not to.
While Jack’s research aims to help university policies keep pace with their increasingly diverse student bodies, it also aims to show how students who may appear to have similarly disadvantaged backgrounds actually undergo very different acculturation processes before and once they arrive at a university. The support they receive during this critical time can mean the difference between making the most of their time at college and simply getting by.
Whereas previous research lumps all lower-income students together, Jack says it is not that simple. He divides them into two groups: the “privileged poor” who enter college from boarding, day, and preparatory high schools, and the “doubly disadvantaged,” who come from public—often underserved and segregated—schools. According to Jack, they all can do the academic work, but their divergent experiences impact not only their ability to adapt to expectations of academic engagement and section participation, but also their ability to partake in crucial self-advocacy.
Jack uses the example of office hours to illustrate students’ divergent preparation for core features of the college experience that many of us take for granted. “On the first day of section, when I introduce office hours, do I say ‘My office hours are Tuesdays from 2 to 4 p.m.’? That’s Greek to some people who come from schools where their presence was an imposition, not an expectation.” As Jack points out, students can have all sorts of questions and anxieties from not knowing whether they are expected to come to the office with questions prepared or, if the meeting is going to take place in a café, whether they will need to buy a drink and how much that drink will cost.
While some students grapple with a host of concerns such as these, says Jack, “Those with previous exposure to small classes, close contact with teachers built into their schedules, and office hours in high school are those who feel more comfortable reaching out to adults in college.” Given the fact that, as Jack states, “academic life is inherently social,” coming to office hours can make the difference between a student succeeding in the class and getting a strong letter of recommendation from a teaching fellow or professor who knows them well, or slipping by, struggling and unnoticed.
Jack’s most recent work investigates how the amount of stress students experience with regard to seeking academic help correlates with their anxiety over accessing other kinds of support, such as mental health care. “If they’re anxious about something like office hours, how much less likely are they to go and get a diagnosis at health services? These disparate behaviors are the product of the entrenched inequalities in our schools.”
As graduate students, says Jack, we are in a unique position to positively impact the many undergraduates we teach. “The most important thing here at Harvard is to question what we take for granted.” He gives the example of a student who was made to feel uncomfortable when her section leader scolded her in class for not buying the book. While to the section leader, the student probably seemed unprepared, in reality, buying an expensive text was prohibitive. “They were only reading two chapters of this expensive book, and she chose to borrow a copy from the library,” Jack explains. “Why should she buy it?” he asks. “No student should ever be berated for not buying the book.”
While we can all aim to be more inclusive and sensitive in the classroom, not everyone’s research aims to impact policy in as direct a way as Jack’s. He maintains, however, that this is okay. “Not everyone’s research is going to be, ‘Let’s create this policy to reduce this form of inequality,’ but if we think of inequality only that way, we’d be wrong.” From researching previously marginalized women writers to bringing key figures like W. E. B. Du Bois back into mainstream academic discourse, Jack says, “There’s a lot we can do to engage one another to make sure that voices aren’t silenced. Let’s expand how we engage our students so that when one day we run a lab, for instance, and it isn’t populated solely with white males, we don’t run it in such a way that only white males can succeed.”
At Harvard, Jack says, “We are fortunate enough to be surrounded with different kinds of diversity. But the job of diversity shouldn’t be relegated to people who fit in those categories.”