“It hurts,” “I’m vulnerable” and “it’s blatant” are a few of the ways disadvantaged students described their college experiences in a research project aimed at uncovering structural exclusion at the university level.
Harvard sociologist Anthony Jack shared his research findings on how programs created by universities to aid disadvantaged students can actually hurt them more than help, as part of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab’s Fall Speaker Series.
His two-year project looked solely at universities who historically have had a majority of white, affluent students, but that have adopted programs to increase socioeconomic diversity. Jack kept the location of his in-person research confidential, simply referring to it as “Renowned.”
The sociologist focused his research on three main university programs and policies to assess their effect on the marginalization of minority students, with the goal of changing policies that minority students may not be aware of, but whose effects they feel daily.
Jack said only one freshman orientation session at “Renowned” is free of cost, often leaving it as the only option for underprivileged students to attend. Upon arriving, students interviewed said they were greeted with tampons left on floors, dirty underwear scattered about, feces-covered toilets and bathtubs filled with beer cans that they were expected to clean.
Instead of ending orientation excited about classes, students feel pushed into the roles typically historically associated with their racial and socioeconomic background, as evidenced by a Snapchat one student sent, captioned “tired of slaving away at the plantation,” Jack said.
Even programs meant to help integrate students into the university’s social scene can help contribute to feeling left out, he noted.
“Students are at Renowned, but they are not part of Renowned,” Jack said.
He offered the example of one program that allows disadvantaged students to log hours worked toward paying for university socials and trips often requires students to obtain separate tickets or enter events through separate dorms.
“Such a scenario conjures up images of the segregated schools, bathrooms, water fountains and lunch fountains of the Jim Crow South,” Jack explained.
Policies affecting dorm and dining hall closure over spring break can also leave students hungry and homeless until classes resume, Jack said. He recalled stories of students searching out food pantries or fainting from not being able to afford to eat until classes resumed.
“These are the real hunger games, but the odds are never in the student’s favor,” one anonymous student said.
Such university policies “highlight a tension between proclamation and practice,” Jack said, as “renowned” universities claim that money will not act as a barrier for any student.
He added that these policies are especially dangerous, because students may equate the inability to fit in at a high-level university with the inability to fit in with a high-level working class.