Better to be born rich than smart, Georgetown study says | News Coverage from USA

Better to be born rich than smart, Georgetown study says

It’s better to be born rich than smart.

That’s the sobering takeaway of a new national study released by Georgetown University on Wednesday that suggests a child’s success in life is shaped less by their innate talents and more by their social standing and life circumstances from birth to early adulthood.

Specifically, researchers found that seven out of 10 wealthy kindergarten students with low test scores were affluent by age 25, compared to only three out of 10 high-scoring kindergarten students from poor families who were affluent by early adulthood.

“If you’re born well off and you don’t show talent, you have a better chance of ending up in a good job than if you’re a low-income, talented student,” said Tony Carnavale, director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which produced the study.

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“This is the Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin report — it’s the empirical evidence of that,” he added, referencing the college admissions bribery scandal, which has busted the notion that premier universities were admitting all students on the basis of merit alone.

Huffman pleaded guilty this month to fraud conspiracy. Loughlin and her husband pleaded not guilty.

Study followed kindergartners from 1989

The new study is unusual for its breadth and depth. Four researchers at Georgetown combined national data sets to follow the school and career trajectories of a representative sample of students in public and private schools.

They started with a group of kindergartners in the 1989-90 school year and tracked students through high school, college and into the labor market.

The researchers studied students’ test scores, college enrollment and attainment, and the prestige of their occupation, if they secured one.

The findings challenged the notion that America’s K-12 education system is a great equalizer. For example, nearly 40% of low-income kindergartners still had a low socioeconomic status by adulthood.

Researchers also found the achievement gap was already well established in kindergarten. Starting out, 74% of the wealthiest kindergarten students scored in the top half of the scale in math, compared to 23% of the poorest kindergartners.

As the students grew up, both groups — higher income and low income — wobbled academically, but wealthier students were more likely to rebound. 

“When the high-scoring poor kids inevitably stumbled, their scores were more likely to decline and then stay low over time,” the study said.

High school math scores signal future success

Carnavale said research has shown that higher-income students have built-in family and economic supports that help them to recover. For example, affluent families spend about five times as much on enrichment activities for their children compared to low-income families.

Some good news: Across all racial and ethnic groups, students from disadvantaged families with top-half math scores in high school were more likely to obtain a good entry-level job as an adult.

But those outcomes varied by race, according to the study. Among the students who scored high on math tests in 10th grade, only 50% of black students and 46% of Latino students went on to earn a college degree, compared to 62% of white students and 69% of Asian students.

Are there any solutions?

Carnavale said yes. Policymakers could figure out how to pour more resources into high-quality preschool programs that could prepare more disadvantaged students for kindergarten. 

He also suggested that schools need to figure out how to better assist low-income and minority students when they fall. He said that’s especially true for students of color because they face greater institutional and systemic barriers — as well as more discrimination and segregation — than white students.

He also said the fluctuation in students’ test scores over time means there’s room for more academic interventions at the K-12 level. Adding counselors and career-exploration opportunities could help, Carnavale said.

Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.

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