Persistent Socioeconomic Achievement Gap Shows Money Still Trumps Brains

In a Science News roundup of recent sociological and psychological studies on student behavior, it’s clear the “Varsity Blues” college cheating scandal is only the tip of the iceberg. Many of the ways in which the children of wealthier parents have an advantage over the poor are built into our educational system. And they’re perfectly legal. The research shows despite the noise some schools have made about boosting diversity in admissions, socioeconomic diversity hasn’t improved one whit.

It’s actually strange that the wealthy parents nailed in the Varsity Blues sting resorted to fraud when they could afford the (admittedly more expensive but safer) option to simply use existing legal methods of cheating. I suspect there will be no scandal in the immediate future over the fact that rich parents have a plethora of legitimate cheating options. In fact, why don’t we count the ways?

Thanks in part to a discrimination lawsuit against Harvard alleging anti-Asian bias and reporting by The New York Times, we now have actual data on such things as wealthy families making large donations, so their less competitive children can be accepted to college. And we know the legacy admission rate is five times higher than that for non-legacy students of the same qualifications.

What’s less obvious to some is that even a blind reliance on hard numbers, such as GPA and standardized test scores, is far from meritocratic. GPA is highly correlated with income — not because rich people got rich by having a genetic disposition to intelligence, but because grades are heavily influenced by circumstance. One study revealed a remarkably predictable inverse relationship between part-time work hours and GPA. It determined that students working 20 hours a week lose about a half letter grade in their GPA, which is huge.

Standardized tests like the SAT — or for college students hoping to get into a medical or law program, the MCAT or LSAT — have much in common with IQ tests. Much of their content is not focused on specific curricular learning (which can vary from school to school and state to state), but instead they aim to measure something like raw intelligence or academic potential. So this would seem to be a boon for the talented poor to overcome their low GPAs and show they really have something special.

However, paid tutoring and test prep programs have sprung up. So families who can pay are able to get their kids test-specific training to help them fake a higher level of creativity, critical thinking and processing power than they really have. Meanwhile, studies of poverty show money stress can (temporarily) lower IQ. So unless a poor student has a good month — their parent gets a raise or a small inheritance shows up just before they take that standardized test — their academic ability might be underestimated.

The most insidious thing about all this is how easy it is to miss. You may think Donald Trump’s adult children got their undeserved sense of self-importance genetically, but we have a system in which the rich have a head start — in mostly hidden ways. They don’t necessarily realize to what extent the system is rigged to overstate their talent and undercut the abilities of their less affluent competitors. And most of them don’t want to know.

Partly it’s human nature to be defensive of one’s status and to disregard  evidence that would damage our self-image. To some extent, the Dunning-Kruger effect may play a part, as well. But largely we have a system in which it is easy for someone who has been handed everything to argue they did it all themselves — and claim the poor could, too, if they were smart or hardworking enough.

We maintain that fiction, but it doesn’t just protect the egos of the 1 percent’s mediocre. It provides a justification for us not to do anything about it on a societal level. So I’m afraid it may be time to burst some bubbles. Who wants to break it to Eric Trump?

Photo credit: Getty Images

42 comments

hELEN h
hELEN hEARFIELD10 days ago

tyfs

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Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan H12 days ago

thanks

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Kevin B
Kevin B15 days ago

thank you for sharing.

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Shirley S
Shirley S26 days ago

America has been known for many years for it's money can buy anything logic.

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Leo C
Leo Custer29 days ago

Thank you for posting!

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Leo C
Leo Custer29 days ago

Thank you for posting!

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Joan E
Joan E29 days ago

I tutor kids who have terrible problems in the family that affect the children, including poverty, parents leaving, ill health, parents who don't know English and can't help their kids. I have tutored other kids in how to excel in SAT exams. Money can make a real difference in student outcomes.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Thanks.

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Lisa M
Lisa Mabout a month ago

Thanks.

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Sherry Kohn
Sherry Kohnabout a month ago

Noted

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