Stanford Research Finds Widening Education Gap in the U.S.

A recent study by Stanford Professor Sean Reardon found that the educational achievement gap between students from rich and poor families has widened in the past thirty years. According to the study, “the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born twenty-five years earlier.”

“One of the big reasons is increased income inequality… high income families have a lot more resources than low income families relative to what they used to. That means that they’re able to invest more in their kids, so we’re seeing high income families investing more money and more time,” explained Reardon.

Although this could account for the gap, School of Education Professor David Plank cautioned against such an easy attribution.

“Income inequality has been rising, but in fact, as the Occupy Wall Street movement has pointed out, the main inequality has been between the very wealthy and the rest, with only some divergence between the upper middle class and the rest…  the achievement differences [Reardon] has identified affected a much larger share of the population than 1%.”

“As [the] importance of education as a criterion for upward mobility and success has increased, middle class and upper class parents have everything they could to ensure that their kids get the best possible education,” said Plank.

“And in an education system where opportunities are limited,” he continued  “upper class parents’ efforts to maximize the educational success of their own children, has widened the gap between children with prosperous and engaged parents and everyone else.”

The determinative effect of income on educational success is a common strand in Reardon and Plan’s explanations. The professors differed not on the immediate correlation between income inequality and achievement disparity, but on the relationship between the upward trends of both statistics. For Plank, increasing income inequality is not a sufficient explanation for widening disparity in educational achievement. The rise of education as a criterion for success and the economic means held by high-income families to secure such platforms is the mechanism through which the achievement disparity has widened.

The growing trend of globalization and its contribution to the decline of the manufacturing industry in America may provide a causal explanation for the trend Plank noted.

Low-skill labor has become increasingly available at lower costs outside the United States. Consequently the market for manufacturing jobs has dramatically shrunk in the US. In the 50’s and 60’s, a high school education was sufficient for the middle class to enter the manufacturing industry. However, over time, such opportunities have become scarce due to out-sourcing. According to Plank, these higher achieving opportunities are secured by those with the means, at the expense of those with little resources.

The increased economic value of education, coupled with the unique means of high-income families points to concerning social and political consequences of the widening educational achievement gap.

“The American dream is harder for families to achieve,” said Reardon.

The mythology of egalitarian self-realization, a central tenant in much of American culture and politics, is belied precisely by the mechanism that Plank described above.

“People with more wealth, more income, more parental education—people from higher social class—have huge built in advantages” he averred. Thus, the correlation between merit and success has diminished, giving way to factors outside an individual’s control. Indeed, absolute social mobility has declined since the 1970’s—fewer working class and lower-middle class people have entered the middle class.

Reardon captured the concern succinctly in the case of standardized SAT tests: “If your parents have a lot of money, you can retake the SAT as many times as you want, and have the advantage of private tutoring, as well as many other resources.” Thus, students from low-income families “might be at a disadvantage, not because [they’re] not as smart, but because [they] can’t take the test as many times.”

For Plank, the systemic advantages held by high-income families undermine a guiding ethos in progressive educational policy: educational equity among all Americans in primary education. According to Plank, “The public rhetoric says that we should provide excellent education to every kid, but to the extent that this is a competition [in which some sides have more means]… some are going to get ahead, and some are going to fall behind,” despite equally excellent primary education.

Thus, a fundamental goal of primary educational equity, to provide the opportunity for meritocratic social mobility regardless of socio-economic background, has become untenable in an economic climate that necessitates secondary education, and in which certain students are more disposed to receive such education, regardless of their intellectual merits.

The doom and gloom of these experts in educational policy raises important questions for Stanford University as an institute of higher education—how could (or should) Stanford react to the growing achievement gap between income sectors of the American population, and the underlying problem of fairness that it reflects?

“Stanford, like other elite highly competitive universities, has a hard time finding low-income applicants who have the kinds of educational records…that make them competitive to get in…There are far fewer students at Stanford who come form low-income families or who are first generation college students than [the statistics of college enrollment] in the general population. The majority of students at Stanford are from families with above average or well above average socio-economic backgrounds,” Reardon speculated.

“This reality forces Stanford Admissions to consider policies that work against the widening gap. Stanford has been making efforts to attract or recruit low income students,” said Reardon.

Indeed, based on 2009-2020 data, Stanford is ranked 7th nationally in terms of the economic diversity of its student body according to a study conducted by the US News and World Report.

The finding is based on the percent of undergraduates who receive Federally funded need-based Pell grants. According to the study, “many experts say that Pell figures are the best available gauge of how many low-income undergrads there are on a given campus.” 17% of Stanford Undergraduates receive Pell grants.

Overall, according to statistics available on Stanford’s profile on the U.S. News & World Report website, 52% of Stanford undergraduates received some need based financial aid.

Although admirable, financial aid policies can only play a limited role.

“What we need is a bigger pool of low-income students who are successful in high school that gets them to the level to be a competitive applicant for Stanford…Increasing the size of that pool is a hard thing for universities to do,” asserted Reardon.

The broad structural problems that disadvantage low-income students are outside the control of a private institution such as Stanford.

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