The American education system is an “aristocracy masquerading as a meritocracy”

Education is often sold as a great equalizer, but new research suggests it actually reinforces inequality.

According to a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and Workforce, about 30% of low-income kindergarteners with high test scores end up getting a college education and employment. well-paid entry level. On the other hand, kindergarteners from the wealthiest families with low test scores have a 70% chance of reaching the same level of education and employment.

The study’s findings provide insight into a very fundamental question, according to Anthony Carnevale, the director of the Georgetown center and one of the report’s authors. Is our education system working to propel the most talented people into the best jobs?

The answer, according to Carnevale: “It’s not a meritocracy, it’s more and more an aristocracy masquerading as a meritocracy.”

“It’s not a meritocracy, it’s more and more an aristocracy masquerading as a meritocracy.”


— —Anthony Carnevale, Director Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce

The research adds to the evidence that a young person’s future prospects may depend more on their background than their innate talent. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case. As the report notes, students from affluent families have more cushion — in the form of resources, including tutoring and other guidance — than their lower-income peers to help them up when they stumble.

Furthermore, our public education system — which we have lobbied to mitigate these differences in environments and resources — still falls short, despite decades of reform, Carnevale said.

Schools that serve low-income communities and students of color typically work with far fewer resources than those in wealthier, whiter communities. “The systemic effect” is “institutional class bias and institutional racism,” Carnevale said. This, he added, can make it difficult for talented, low-income students to retain their benefits.

But even low-income students who, upon leaving high school, seem more talented than their higher-income peers are less likely to succeed as young adults.

• Tenth grade students who come from families at school highest level of income and mark in the low half math assessments in high school have a 56% chance of success in early career and education.

• Tenth grade students from families in the lowest income level and mark in the upper half in high school math assessments have a 47% chance of achieving this goal, according to the study.

One reason that’s the case: A “big sorting out” takes place when students apply and attend college, Carnevale said. Affluent students are much more likely to end up in the type of selective, well-resourced colleges where students have a better chance of graduating and gaining full-time, well-paying jobs.

They have access to resources like standardized test prep (or sometimes even more nefarious perks, as the college admissions scandal suggests) that can help these students write their resumes. But previous research from the Georgetown center also suggests that there are still tens of thousands of low-income students with test scores good enough to attend these selective schools but who are not admitted.

The result, according to Carnevale: “College or post-secondary education has become the cornerstone of this system that pretty much takes the inequality it finds after high school, reproduces it in the selectivity of the higher education system, projects all of that in the labor market, and then starts that cycle all over again.

Janice G. Ball