Buening: Educational Barriers Negate Equal Opportunity


West High School Thursday afternoon in Salt Lake City (Photo by Maya Fraser | The Daily Utah Chronicle)

By Sarah Buening, Assistant Opinion Editor


America loves to use the term “equal opportunity” in reference to our access to success. Equal opportunity, by definition, would mean that every American has a level playing field without the existence of unjust obstacles or discrimination. But we don’t.

Hard work plus intelligence doesn’t always equal success, despite what good old-fashioned American ideals would have you believe. And while education is meant to be an all-accessible equalizer in the pursuit of success, it isn’t. The path to wealth and security is a much steeper climb for some than others, depending largely on class status and race.

While it’s certainly possible to achieve wealth from less privileged circumstances, most wealthy people had a head start. Reaching perfect equal opportunity may not be attainable but knocking down discriminatory barriers in education would get us closer to its realization.

According to the Georgetown Center of Education and the Workforce, your birth status is a better indication of future success than intelligence. A child in the lower quartile of socioeconomic status with high test scores in kindergarten has a 3 in 10 chance of having a college education and a good entry-level job as a young adult. Comparatively, top socioeconomic quartile students with low test scores have a 7 in 10 chance.

This reality shows us that equal opportunity is a myth. Opportunity exists for everyone, but by a much narrower margin for underprivileged people. Winning the birth lottery ensures you a future of advantages, often including the inheritance of intergenerational wealth. Wealth concentration is greatly impacted by this transfer of wealth. Those in the top 10% of the income distribution have twice the probability of wealth inheritance of those in the bottom 50%. And for those at the top, the amount of inheritance is almost four times as large. As of 2017, the top 1% inherited an average sum of $4.8 million. In America, fifty wealthy dynasty families alone have $1.2 trillion in assets.

However, even besides these tangible inheritances of money and assets, those born into wealth were likely graced with many privileges throughout their upbringings. Society fails to recognize these advantages — illustrated by the Forbes 400 list claiming that most billionaires were entirely “self-made.”

For instance, consider access to better education. Wealthier families have the means to enroll their kids in private schools. These students are treated differently than their poorer counterparts. They normally have more expensive, quality materials for sports and school equipment. But that’s not all.

Enrollment in private, more expensive K-12 schools gives kids an edge in college admissions. Private school students are more likely to complete an advanced degree by their mid-20s than public school students. They also have higher averages on standardized tests.

These higher-income schools experience accelerating grade inflation which increases the student’s advantages — students who already have the luxury of hiring advanced tutors if they need extra assistance, and whose parents have the financial resources to help pay for expensive college tuitions in the first place. Perhaps this explains why rich students are far more likely to attend highly selective universities with the best mobility rates.

The system isn’t fair. Money practically guarantees greater access for those that inherit it. Speaking from personal experience, the uphill battle on the other end isn’t fun. At a young age, my family was forced to declare bankruptcy after a series of unfortunate and uncontrollable events. I was raised with the knowledge that I would need to make up the gap.

My success was contingent on outworking and outperforming everyone around me. This led to juggling work on top of school and sports, loading my schedule with as many AP classes as possible and inevitable mental health crises. For me, it meant years of desperation with the end goal of scraping together enough scholarships to support college education. And I’m not alone in that struggle.

By 2019 estimates, about 34 million Americans live in poverty. That’s only constituting those under the designated poverty line, which doesn’t include much of the lower class. So many people experience intergenerational poverty, resulting in a nearly unbreakable pattern of perpetual inequality. Worse, poverty cycles are plagued by their own additional inequalities. Minority communities, in particular, experience disproportionate impacts. This is unsurprising, as about 73% of inheritance recipients are white. Middle-class Black Americans also experience lower mobility and income levels than white middle-class Americans.

We need to remove the obstacles that make lower-class progression more challenging, and that starts with education. College needs to become more accessible and affordable. Kids like Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law who got into Harvard despite average high school academic records, shouldn’t get special treatment. Especially not because of the large donations their families make to their universities.

With the way our economy currently operates, smarts and grit can only get you so far. We don’t actually reward hard work and intelligence or promote “equal opportunity.” Unfortunately, if you want riches, you’d better hope your socioeconomic status is better than your intelligence.


[email protected]