Growing up in rural Kentucky, Adam Howard was all too familiar with government checks and the effects of extreme poverty. Later, taking graduate courses at Harvard and teaching at a private school, he found he couldn’t relate to his peers.

There was some deep chasm between them: privilege.

Now, Howard, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Education, is exploring privilege in an unexpected place—elite prep schools—with unexpected researchers—college students. One key to understanding privilege, he’s learned, is to harness his college students’ ability to relate to his younger subjects, while confronting their own privilege in the process.

Howard has researched privilege at elite prep schools around the world for 20 years, peeling back the layers of the elite identity. Rather than study underprivileged communities as most of his colleagues do, Howard looks directly at elite students in their own space.

When Howard arrived at Colby in 2008, the academic definition of privilege and the research surrounding it were scarce. “In the academic world, the concept of privilege has not been a useful concept at all,” Howard said, “because it’s just so limiting.” The conceptualization of privilege, he explained, has long centered around what advantages people have, such as skin color or economic resources. But that’s not comprehensive enough.

Privilege, Howard argues, is a mindset and an identity. “It’s how these advantages shape your understanding of yourself [and] others in the world.”

The manifestation of privilege is known as elitism. It greatly influences one’s biases and values. Across two major studies of elite private high schools in the United States in 2007 and 2012, Howard conducted extensive interviews with student participants to examine how privilege had shaped their attitudes.

From these studies, one of which led to a book coauthored with 23 Colby students, Howard found that privilege often fuels the belief that individuals deserve more than others simply because their privilege has afforded them more. It is a deeply internalized cycle of entitlement and judgment. Many of these so-called elites lack consciousness of societal inequalities and, as a result, perpetuate stereotypes surrounding other racial and economic groups. And the effects of privilege span far outside the U.S.

In his five-year Global Elites study of private prep schools in six different countries, Howard was shocked by the parallels he saw. From Denmark to the Middle East, students expressed privilege in identical ways. Howard observed a prevalent “self-made” mentality among elites. In drastically different parts of the world, students believed that hard work alone, not systemic advantages, had earned them an elite status. Why?

Adam Howard teach in the classroom

“Elite schools are emotional banks,” Howard explained. “They constantly allow [students] to rationalize and perpetuate privileged ways of knowing and doing.” This cycle fuels distinctive markers of privilege across cultures.

This global context matters. To be elite in this day and age, Howard said, means identifying as a global citizen. In recent years, Howard has observed a greater emphasis on “global citizenship” in elite schools’ curriculums and a more concerted effort to attract diverse students. These initiatives, Howard asserts, are often hollow.

Many elite private schools embracing diversity and globalization still fall short in facilitating cross-cultural dialogue among students. In these institutions, the classes and extracurricular activities don’t effectively teach students to accept or value the differences that varied racial or economic backgrounds offer.

These shortcomings are not isolated. Since “all of these schools have global networks,” said Howard, “they’re constantly talking,” and further spreading harmful aspects of the elite identity.

Thus, swaths of elite students go on to identify as “global citizens,” Howard argues, without having actually gained the tools needed to assess and work through their biases. Consequently, global citizenship in elite spaces is often superficial.

While his findings are significant and add to the existing research on privilege, his fellow researchers are equally interested in his methods. They continually ask him one question: how did he do it?

His response? By including student researchers in an unparalleled way.

Adam Howard teach in the classroom

Since 2012, Howard has mentored more than 80 Colby students and coauthored with nearly 40. As a faculty liaison to the men’s basketball team, he’s made it a priority to include the players as research assistants. He’s currently working with more than half the team.

“Male athletes are pretty privileged groups of people,” Howard said. By inviting them to join his work, Howard hopes his research encourages the athletes to critically consider their own privilege. But when he brought his research assistants abroad during his Global Elites study, he didn’t realize how they would impact the data collection.

“One of the things that shocked me,” Howard said, “is just how uncensored, how willing the participants—especially the student participants—were to reveal who they are.” The candor of Howard’s subjects with Colby student researchers, who were similar in age and background, was profound. The result? Authentic conversations that Howard, as a 50-year-old, couldn’t have with a teenager and subsequent data about privilege he couldn’t have gained on his own.

“The approach places Adam’s work in the vanguard of new ways to tackle social inequalities,” said Peter Kuriloff, Professor Emeritus at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “Adam’s work has shown how powerful such methods can be … to help elite college students gain firsthand insight and empathy into the issues.”

While Howard originally sought to explore privilege so he could be a better teacher and relate to others around him, he has undergone a paradigm shift of his own. His scholarship has magnified the ways his students can contribute—as his colleagues. The student involvement is “more reciprocal,” Howard added. “They offer something that is incredibly valuable and unique.” And their work contributes to something much bigger.

“My work has turned out to be not just about privilege,” said Howard, “but also how you involve privileged young people in the research project in order to think more critically, to interrupt some of the processes that regenerate privilege as an identity,” and, importantly, “to disrupt this privilege.”