The Privileged Poor

This weekend, I read Anthony Abraham Tuck’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard 2019). This seemed like appropriate reading heading into the academic year. More than that, the topic of the book (which is neatly summarized in its title) is one that has sort of haunted me for the last several years. On the one hand, my institution, the University of North Dakota, is by no means an elite college. On the other hand, much in Tuck’s book applies to the kind of diverse student body that UND attracts that includes students form a wide range of economic circumstances, levels of academic and social preparation, and experiences. The diversity of students including students that Tuck would identify as the “privilege poor,” who entered college from solid or even elite high schools and who were prepared academically and socially for college while still being disadvantaged economically. UND also has its share of “doubly disadvantaged” students who struggle with the social and economic aspects of college. Finally, UND has students who adapt quickly to the college environment. 

To be clear, my own experience attending a small liberal arts university, reflect my own incredibly privileged middle class up bringing and the rigorous quality of my own high school education. I recognized myself in Tuck’s book, of course, and I realize that my background allowed me to make the most out of my college experience. I never really struggled reaching out to faculty for help or support. I understood the expectations in my classes and how to navigate most of the social, bureaucratic, and academic pressures of college work. My family supported me throughout college financially, socially, and emotionally.

That being said, I’ve been thinking a good bit about how my classes, my approaches to teaching, my expectations of my students, and my view of my institution reveal and reflected my own privileged experience in college. Many of these questions originated after I read Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift (Chicago 2011) almost a decade ago (here are my thoughts then).

Tuck’s book is worth reading for anyone teaching at the university level, and particularly significant for those of us at institutions with diverse student populations. It complements recent work on gender and race by showing how economic status and the privileges that it often affords exerts a strong influence on how students experience college. The book, however, takes pains not to oversimplify the influence of economic class by demonstrating how the “privileged poor” from stronger educational backgrounds in high school irrespective of economic status often adapt more quickly to college. 

I have a few simple take aways.

First, I need to recognize that students from less privileged backgrounds have distinct challenges adapting to college culture. Something as simple as explaining how office hours work or what they mean can help a “doubly disadvantaged” student feel more comfortable seeking help from faculty.

This simple advice (which isn’t unique to Tuck’s work, but brilliantly contextualized there) has already shaped my approach to meeting with students. In the past, I’ve had a more or less open door policy meaning that students were always welcome to come to my office. For many students this was appealing because it allowed them more flexibility in how they interacted with me and recognized that most of our students have far more formal constraints on their time than I do. At the same time, I also see how this kind of flexibility can be disconcerting to students who are uncomfortable interacting with faculty because they represent authority figures, because students fear that they’re interrupting, or because students don’t want to be asking for special help or handouts. Formal office hours provide a kind of structure that both encourages students to see office hours as part of our mutual obligation to one another, and this might help mitigate the social risk that some students feel.

Second, students from less economically secure backgrounds sometimes have experiences that will compromise their academic performance, but will feel uncomfortable (or simply unaware of the possibilities of) seeking help, asking for extensions, or finding a way to make up missed work. While I’ve never been a stickler for due dates and deadlines, I can make more clear in my syllabus and – more importantly – in class that I’m willing to be flexible and work with situations that could arise. This policy, of course, is not just important for economically disadvantaged students, but also for students struggling with any number of other challenges from mental health issues to balancing work and life, family responsibilities, and academic, financial, or other challenges.

Thirdly, I need to do more to support the real material challenges facing disadvantaged students on campus. Tuck talked about issues like dining halls closing over spring break introducing a real crisis for students on assistance who lose access to free meals. He noted efforts to create food pantries on campus and other efforts to expand the scope of aid to include all aspects of the university experience. 

At the same time, he offered a cautionary note when he observed the social stigmas attached to certain programs that provided support to students, but also made their economic status visible to their peers. 

Tuck’s book is an accessible, yet richly documented study of the various kinds of privilege and disadvantage present at elite universities which is nevertheless valuable for faculty at a wide range of institutions. The book offers both focused attention on the interpersonal dynamic between students and faculty which is readily applicable to my own interaction with students, and larger institutional perspectives that provide context for how students experience their education and social life at the university.   

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