Fireside Chat: Dr. Anthony Jack

For many college applicants, admission is not the same as acceptance.

That was just one of many takeaways from this week’s lively and candid virtual discussion with Dr. Anthony Jack, sponsored by the Steppingstone Foundation and the National Partnership for Educational Access. As he told the hundreds of attendees, if colleges are to serve as “springboards” of opportunity for all students, they need to embrace change. 

The Dec.14 “fireside chat” drew education professionals, program Alumni, and supporters for a timely conversation about race, class, equity, and advocacy for change. Deftly guiding the evening was Dr. Mariel Novas ’00, a Steppingstone Alumna and the Assistant Director of Partnerships and Engagement for Massachusetts at The Education Trust. 

Dr. Jack illuminated how the pandemic has exacerbated the very inequalities that institutions have struggled to overcome. Along with forcing schools to change policies and practices overnight, it has opened the eyes of many to both immediate needs and systemic issues that must be addressed. 

While campuses may be more diverse, “I like to say, ‘access ain’t inclusion,’” Dr. Jack noted. “Inclusion is about accessing all the rights and privileges extended in your admission letter.”  

In elaborating on the point, he drew on both personal stories and the research that shaped his 2019 book, The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students

Using the book’s terminology, he framed his own story as one of the “privileged poor” as compared to the “doubly disadvantaged.” He noted that “the terms are loaded,” and intentionally so.

He shared how just one year at a Miami prep school helped ready him for Amherst College. As a high school senior, after years in overcrowded, under-resourced public schools, he found a new world “where teachers became mentors, and mentors became sponsors.” “I discovered my experience was an on ramp to selective colleges.” Now an assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, he’s gone on to see how low-income students from high-performing schools are “privileged”including being more likely to be admitted to top colleges. When admission teams are charged with increasing diversity, they often turn to established sources. At the most selective colleges and universities, nearly half of Black students and a third of Latinx students are graduates of independent schools.

If that’s the case, he wondered aloud, “are you actually doing the work of diversity or taking the easy way out?”

What gives him hope? Seeing universities able to pivot, for one. Asked by Dr. Novas if he could lift up examples of schools doing more inclusive work, he shared a few.

He cited the example of UC Berkeley having a food security officer, acknowledging both the episodic and chronic dimensions of the issue. Muhlenberg College, he noted, has created pods of students to support each other, knowing low-income students are often the least likely to ask for help. Even before the pandemic, community colleges offered many lessons, he added.

Asked about the recent studies pointing to a disproportionate impact of academic losses on students from historically marginalized communities, he said he worries just as much about the physical, social, and emotional losses. As he added, “Students don’t come to college, families do.” 

The audience shared their own worries from the frontlines of the pandemic, including hearing students discouraged by falling grades and questioning whether college is even in their future. 

Now more than ever, Dr. Jack noted, organizations like Steppingstone, NPEA, and its members will play a crucial role in giving these students a stable foundation on which to stand.

“Our country is only as great as our educated citizenry,” he concluded, “and we’re only at our best with a diverse educated citizenry.”

To watch a recording of the event, please click hereAccess Passcode: Fireside2020!