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The tale we tell about low-income students at Harvard is simple and affecting. It’s also mostly inaccurate.
The narrative goes something like this: An inner-city kid from an underfunded high school — through a combination of intelligence, ambition, and luck — manages to become a competitive candidate for admission. The American Dream succeeds and Gatsby reaches his green light. But immediately after Harvard accepts the student, they experience acute culture shock. They aren’t used to being around wealthy peers, participating in conversations about luxurious summer vacations, and don’t know what being a “consultant” even means. College, in both academic and social contexts, is alienating. Thus, we push Harvard to provide ample resources for low-income and first-gen students to make this transition a little more bearable.
As familiar as this narrative may seem, it is wholly deceptive. The anomalous truth is that many low-income students on campus experience no culture shock at all. Anthony A. Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, refers to these students as the “privileged poor.” This oxymoron describes low-income students who attended wealthy, private high schools and boarding schools on scholarship. Although the privileged poor lack economic resources at home, Jack believes they acquire immense social capital at these elite high schools. The privileged poor learn unspoken skills, like attending office hours to earn higher grades — skills that students from underfunded high schools cannot learn before college. When the privileged poor arrive at the gates of Harvard they are fully prepared for the incoming wave of competition and affluence.
According to research in Jack’s recent book, half of the low-income students at elite universities come from wealthy high schools — the types of schools that act as Ivy League pipelines. Our simple tale about low-income students at prestigious universities fails to account for the experiences of the privileged poor, who come into college with the subtle skills needed to navigate a rigorous academic and pre-professional social environment.
The abundance of the privileged poor on campus is far from a coincidence. From an institutional perspective, these students are a “safer bet.” Low-income students from wealthy high schools will have an easier time maintaining Harvard’s inflated GPA from the moment they step on campus. By accepting the privileged poor, Harvard is able to display its socioeconomic diversity without having to worry about low-income students transitioning to elite spaces for the first time. Recruiting the privileged poor is also the easiest way to get socioeconomic diversity — admissions officers have to look no further than ordinary feeder schools. All incentives point to the privileged poor being the preferred low-income students on campus.
While it is important to call on Harvard to expand its recruitment to underfunded high schools, the reality is that the privileged poor will continue to make up a large percentage of the low-income student body. Our current process of addressing socioeconomic barriers is wholesale, blunt, and not tailored to this material truth. Resources such as the Harvard First Generation Program and Harvard Primus tailor their programs to all low-income and first-gen students, without distinction. While Harvard should absolutely foster community among these groups, special attention needs to be paid to those who don’t fit under the privileged poor label. Low-income students that did not attend elite high schools deserve extra attention.
I attended Cambridge Rindge & Latin high school, an extremely well-funded public school — this gave me ample opportunity to prepare for college. I went to office hours, practiced writing extensive essays, and learned how to study for finals. Thus, being part of the first-gen community on campus is still highly rewarding, but I’m not the type of student who needs a lot of extra support navigating elite academic spaces.
Harvard should make active efforts to identify which low-income students attended substandard high schools: Such students merit higher investment, recognition and support. Treating and talking about low-income students as a monolith misses the mark from many different angles. It underestimates the preparedness of the privileged poor while, most importantly, risks taking away resources from low-income students that don’t happen to be a part of the privileged poor. It might be too expensive, for example, to provide an extra one-on-one counselor for all low-income first-year students. However, this policy seems to be within reach if low-income students from underfunded high schools are its isolated recipients.
These distinctions — the nuances of privilege and access to resources within low-income groups — matter. Only by recognizing that low-income students are not a uniform group can we open up the door to meaningful improvement and greater equity.
Harold Klapper ’25 is an economics and philosophy double concentrator in Eliot House. His column “Practical Progressivism” appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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