Despite the fact that it is 2015, that more children are going to college and graduating from high school, the achievement gap between affluent and disadvantaged children is larger than ever. Currently, only 30% of Americans have a higher level of education than their parents did, and only 5% of Americans whose parents didn’t finish high school even have a college degree, which has become a necessary prerequisite for any kind of upward mobility. The inequality gap is widening in schools, and it’s a real problem.
Family income has a strong bearing on whether or not a child goes to college. A study by Kansas State University’s Philippe Belley and University of Western Ontario’s Lance Lochner conducted a study which found that “by the early 2000s the college attendance rate for children from the richest fourth of American families was 15 to 30 percentage points higher than that of the poorest fourth.”
The sons and daughters from affluent families are far more likely to receive higher education and to surpass the level of education their parents received, meaning that they are more like to get better jobs and make more money, beginning a cycle of inequality over again. Children who come from disadvantaged families are far, far less likely to succeed.
Part of the reason this cycle continues is simply that low-income families cannot afford the cost of college for their children. It is too heavy, and too risky, a price to pay. Another factor is socially entrenched biases which favor the rich, biases which play into education outcomes.
Though inequality from racial segregation in schools has reduced somewhat in the last sixty years, it still exists and plays a prominent part in how students receive education—and how they feel about it. Anindya Kundu, an education psychologist and PhD candidate at NYU, recalls one of his own students, who once asked her mother whether she “looked white enough” to succeed at NYU. In 2010, the average black student in New York attended schools where only 18% of their fellow classmates were white.
Kundu hopes that by teaching students about their heritage will empower them to claim it, rather than deny it with hopes of “looking white,” and propel them towards success. If education inequality can be leveled out completely for students aged 0 to 14, those who come from disadvantaged homes will have a much higher chance of success.
So even if the racial inequality gap between students has narrowed, we face a similar challenge in income inequality. Today, that gap is nearly twice as large as the one that exists between black and white children.