Privilege at HHS: Is Our Town Perpetuating Educational Inequality?

Sophie Mulaire, Managing Editor

Hastings-on-Hudson—a picturesque village located on the eastern bank of the Hudson River with breathtaking views of the New York City skyline. Not only is our quaint little town full of beauty, but we boast of brains as well. In 2020, Hastings High School was ranked number 7 out of 47 public high schools in Westchester County. The median household income, $127,143, sat proudly next to the ranking. Tucked at the very end of the page were statistics detailing the number of economically disadvantaged students in our town, a shockingly low 6%. With the class of 2022 made up of 125 students, this data suggests that approximately 7 seniors are below the poverty line, significantly lower than the 14% poverty rate average for the nation as a whole.

For most students at HHS, graduating and going onto college is usually not even given a second thought. Many families view attending college as the default, even when it’s not always the goal.

“Not every student chooses or can go to college,” said Jasmine Hunter, a senior at Hastings. “Students can feel somewhat isolated because they aren’t going down the same path as others.”

Living in an affluent community such as Hastings, students can feel a lot of pressure to perform well; this pressure can fall onto parents, too, who dish out thousands of dollars for SAT prep, college counselors, and academic advisors to ensure that their child gains admission to elite universities.

For the economically disadvantaged students, severely underrepresented in Hastings, the process of applying to college may prove even more difficult.

Simply submitting a college application costs a large sum. Application costs average $75 for many well-known universities, and with the surge of applications in recent years, families can easily spend upwards of $1500 just to press the submit button. The college application process can be extremely daunting if a student doesn’t know what to do, especially when many of the resources that simplify the process cost so much money.

Mae Rooney, a senior who applied this year to a number of colleges, noted that there are certain aspects of admissions that make it harder for seniors who aren’t sure how to fill out their applications. “When it comes to financial aid, that information isn’t really readily available to us. We have to seek it out.” 

Living with the resources a town like Hastings can offer students gives most of us an automatic advantage in admissions to some of the most reputable universities in the world. At Hastings, the rigor of the academics, the prestige of being a “blue-ribbon school,” and the competitive environment is thought to prepare all students for the demands of university life—regardless of their socioeconomic status. However, this might not always be the case. 

Tanvi Misra, an independent writer and multimedia journalist, wrote in her article “Unpacking the Power of Privileged Neighborhoods” that the compounded privilege of affluent neighborhoods is a substantial driving force behind economic, and therefore educational, inequality. Calling on data from a study done by a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Misra describes how living in an advantaged (or richer) neighborhood dramatically influences a person’s educational attainment: “She found that advantaged neighborhoods mattered much more for their residents—the boost they provided was much stronger than the negative effect distressed neighborhoods had on their residents.” Race is also a major player in the assortment of neighborhoods and educational opportunities. White people are often “concentrated in the most advantaged areas,” while racial minorities are typically distributed among different neighborhoods while still remaining widely overrepresented in more disadvantaged ones. This means that geography can’t necessarily be equated to educational opportunities and that even if minorities live in affluent neighborhoods, “they may not experience benefits compared to what their white counterparts experience.”

When a small town like Hastings, where there is less diversity than the national average, is bordered by a city like Yonkers, where 50% of residents identify as part of a racial minority group, we can see a pattern that “speak to the fact that the mechanisms that are enabling advantaged residents in advantaged neighborhoods are ones that exclude black residents and enhance white residents.” This has implications on how cities are planned and “challenges a central assumption that poor areas, and the people who live in them, are the problems. To solve disparities, therefore, a single-minded focus on pouring resources into disadvantaged neighborhoods may not just be ineffective, but also counterproductive. The core problems lie in places and in institutions outside those communities.” While this information is broad, it is striking how easily it can be applied to Hastings. Is our town one of these problematic places? 

In a survey sent out to Hastings High School seniors, an overwhelming majority, 90%, reported that they feel there is pressure at Hastings to attend a “prestigious” or “elite” university. Senior Joey Abirizk stated that “in a small town like Hastings, word about [what school you are going to] gets around really quickly.” In Hastings, chock-full of “urban professionals from New York City,” many students have the advantage of generational wealth, legacy admissions, and social networks. Of the few students who are at an economic disadvantage, some are aiming to become first-generation college students,  entering into a world completely foreign to them and their families. 

Upon the breaking of the infamous college admissions scandal in 2019, Clint Smith, staff writer for The Atlantic, decided to address the ways that universities “systematically amplify and exacerbate the class differences between their students.” Top colleges in the country have consistently formed networks and safety nets to protect wealthier students, and according to a study done by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, students whose families are in the top 1 percent (making upwards of 630,000 dollars a year) are 77 times more likely to be admitted to elite universities compared to students coming from families who make less than 30,000 dollars a year. The students who come from underprivileged backgrounds that do attend top universities are often left to fend for themselves, regardless of their high school’s academic preparation. Research shows that three out of four college campuses close their dining halls during breaks. When this occurs, low-income students are forced to go to the extreme: “many low-income students cannot afford to leave campus, much less go on vacation for break, and as a result take extraordinary measures to make sure they have enough to eat. Some students ration their food, skipping meals to make a limited supply last the entire break. Some students go to food pantries, leaving the campus of a school that might have a billion-dollar endowment to stand in line for a can of beans.” The unspoken rules and social capital that help affluent (or affluently-versed) students to succeed at most universities throughout the country isn’t as helpful when a student is learning to navigate an entirely new world on their own without many of the resources (such as free lunch) their high schools provided. What Hastings fails to do for the disadvantaged members of their student body is prepare them for the class boundaries that college life can serve to rectify. 

In her recommendation for the book The Privileged Poor written by Harvard professor Anthony Abraham Jack, Eren Orbey, a contributing writer at The New Yorker, gives insight into the story of one such low-income student. Jack, who gained a scholarship to Gulliver Preparatory in Miami, attended high school with classmates who drove Range Rovers and boasted about summers abroad. “By the time he boarded his first-ever flight, to Amherst College, he had already acclimated to a microcosm of the campus where he’d live and learn for the next four years.” In his book, Orbey explains, Jack writes about how top colleges in the country recruit low-income students from the same pool of elite high schools, adding to their diversity requirement but putting these newly accepted students at a significant disadvantage. “Jack’s investigation redirects attention from the matter of access to the matter of inclusion. Rather than parse the spurious meritocracy of admissions, his book challenges universities to support the diversity they indulge in advertising.” While universities seek to include underprivileged students and add to their campus diversity, as students enter the environment they quickly come to realize that “acceptance does not equal access.” The “privileged poor”, students who are economically disadvantaged yet attended affluent high schools, “giving them a level of familiarity with and access to the social and cultural capital that tend to make people successful at elite universities,” are therefore made to feel as if they simply do not belong on some of these elite college campuses. “Whether it’s while cleaning a classmate’s bathroom, stocking up on nonperishable food for spring break, or overhearing an offhand comment about how their acceptance was predicated on the color of their skin, or the lower socioeconomic status of their family,” it is not out of the question that some of these students might get discouraged and forgo the experience altogether. In this sense, while Hastings can pride itself on preparing all students, regardless of income and status, for the academic rigor of college, “the privileged poor,” as Jack would call them, remain underserved and overrepresented once they step out into the real world. 

As colleges across the nation become more expensive and more selective, higher education becomes less accessible. Hastings High School continues to receive local and national recognition. But as we encourage our students to leave an impact on the world they are venturing out into, we should consider which world we are really preparing them for.