Gap Between Rich and Poor Students Becoming a Gulf


The gap between rich and poor students has grown substantially over the past few decades according to a recent study by researchers from Stanford University. Since the 1960s, the gap in standardized test scores between affluent and low-income students has grown by 40 percent; it is now double the testing gap between black and white students. Indeed, as sociologist Sean F. Reardon says in the New York Times,

“We have moved from a society in the 1950s and 1960s, in which race was more consequential than family income, to one today in which family income appears more determinative of educational success than race.”

Another study by researchers from the University of Michican has found that the gap between rich and poor students in college completion, considered “the single most important predictor of success in the work force,” has grown by 50 percent since the 1980s.

Both studies have been published in a new book of research, Whither Opportunity?, that was put together by the Russell Sage Foundation, which does research in the social sciences, and the Spencer Foundation, whose focus is education.

As the data from these studies ends in 2007 and 2008 before the recession, it is likely that the academic achievement gap could be even greater, says Professor Reardon. In his research, he compared students from families in the 90th percentile of income (around $160,000 in 2008, when the study was conducted) and from the 10th percentile (around $17,500 in 2008). By the end of that period, the gap between black and white students had significantly shrunk, while that between students from families with different levels of income had grown by 40 percent.

Researchers point to the effect of income in developing a child’s cognitive ability. Wealthy parents certainly have more funds and time to provide children with opportunities in “weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools.” In contrast, lower-income families may only have one parent and may also live in communities in which such programs are not available, and/or may not have the time (not to mention the funds) to take a children to such if they are. Indeed, an article in the February 13th New York Times notes that

By age 4, the average child in an upper-middle-class family has heard 35 million more words than a poor child. Studies have shown that while about two-thirds of kindergartners from the wealthiest 20 percent of households are read to at home every day, about a third of children from the poorest 20 percent are.

Some students at New York City’s P.S. 142, where almost all of the 436 students qualify for free lunches, have never been in a car or to the zoo and some think that the “emergency room of New York Downtown Hospital is the doctor’s office.”

Achievement Gap Persists in College

Another study that suggests that the achievement gap persists once students are in college. Notes the New York Times:

The University of Michigan study, by Susan M. Dynarski and Martha J. Bailey, looked at two generations of students, those born from 1961 to 1964 and those born from 1979 to 1982. By 1989, about one-third of the high-income students in the first generation had finished college; by 2007, more than half of the second generation had done so. By contrast, only 9 percent of the low-income students in the second generation had completed college by 2007, up only slightly from a 5 percent college completion rate by the first generation in 1989.

The vast majority of the students at my college are from working class or lower-middle class backgrounds. Every single student has financial aid and almost all have some kind of job. Our college has financial issues of its own and the experiences students have are simply not the same as those that colleges with more affluent students. The resources in our computer labs and library, not to mention extra funds for scholarships, are very limited. Full-time faculty have higher teaching loads than those at most four-year-colleges and universities; many classes are taught by adjunct faculty as it often costs less to hire them instead of a full-time faculty member.

In addition, students from low-income families often don’t have the funds for textbooks or to provide them with medical, mental health and other services that might help them on their way to earning their degree and to stay in school. Students are wary even of applying for graduate school as they’d prefer not to have more loans to pay back and feel pressure to take the first job (often in retail or in the service industry) they can find on graduating.

An education — a college degree — is no longer the “great equalizer” that it once was.

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Photo by Jagd Mario


ERIKA Sabout a year ago


June L.
June Lacy5 years ago


Debbie L.
Debbie Lim5 years ago

This is very sad to hear. Thanks for sharing.

Carol Gilster
Carol Gilster5 years ago

Hi, Zuzana,
You appear to be an intelligent observer and I believe you are right that, in the end, you will persevere and be able to be competitive with those more privileged because you understand the situation and are willing and able to work hard to make up the difference. In that regard, you have greater skills than those who have always had things given them and expect that from the world around them.
Best wishes to you!

Zuzana K.
Zuzana K5 years ago

In the end it still will be an equalizer if it's completed successfully. But I percieve this definitely in the country where I live too, not only the rich have an easier way in (there are second chance prograpms and what not for a fee)- well it makes poor students like myself try just that much harder to get in - thankfully I recieved an Academic Scholarship - which makes me value and cherish it very much. It definitely is an issue, and one teacher even said to 'take out your ipod so you can look at the text I want to show you all' - some students don''t even own a laptop! I think defitely technology is worsening the gap - before all had affordable pens and papers, and went to the library to borrow books but now increasingly materials for courses need online access - so poorer people are constrained to be in the crowded library to complete tasks, whilst the richer can do it in their own schedule at home on their own laptops.

Stefanie D.
Stefanie D.5 years ago

higher education... should BE OPEN SOURCE!!!

C.M Padget
Carolyn Padget5 years ago

Anyone willing to get an education should be able to get it without having to drive themselves into debt. Anyone willing to improve their circumstances should be given assistance in doing so.

Unfortunately, our government health systems do not support this.
When I went to see if I could get help in able to go to college, I was told "Have three kids, and come back"---no kidding, that was the exact words!

What is sad is that there are so many people that because they are lower-income and their situation seems so hopeless, that they just fall into the the stereotypes in which society has placed them. Just because one is poor, doesn't mean that one has to be constantly drunk/drugged out/loud, or keep garbage on their front yard.
Even if you cannot get help in your education, one can always study some on their own and try to live the best you can in despite the circumstances (even if it is not financially where you want to be). A good example can still be set for your children.

Portland N.
P. L. Neola5 years ago

I have been witnessing this in Las Vegas for the last two years! Now, I realize that it is happening throughout the nation!

Jim C.
Jim Coke5 years ago

Lynn C. Do you realize that "money" in itself has no value, but simply represents value as a means of exchanging goods and services among the people? Money can't be eaten, or worn as clothing, nor can it transport people from one place to another. In essence, what you're saying is that humans should not be able to purchase food and clothing, nor education, for that matter. If there was nothing people valued, money would be meaningless - a $100.00 bill would be as worthless as a used napkin.

If anything is to be blamed for increased inequality in educational achievement, it would be government. Government has become much more involved in providing financial help for education than ever before. I believe this has the effect of diminishing the value of education in many peoples' eyes, and therefore diminishes the motivation for excelling educationally. Those who use their own resources for education tend to take it more seriously, and work harder to excel.

J.L. A.
JL A5 years ago

Anyone think it has anything to do with the reduced public funding support for higher education transferring the costs to the students' shoulders instead?