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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