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Money Over Shakespeare: Study Shows How Childhood Socioeconomic Status Determines Wealth in Adulthood

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By Guest Blogger Sasha Jones

Wealth may have a greater impact on a child's socioeconomic status when they are older than education, according to findings by a Georgetown University study.

The new report, conducted by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce in partnership with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, found that affluent children with low test scores have a 71 percent chance of becoming affluent adults at age 25, while poor children with high test scores only have a 31 percent of chance of becoming wealthy in adulthood.

The disparity becomes more severe when broken down by race. Fifty-one percent of black and 46 percent of Latino 10th graders with high math scores were more likely to earn a college degree within 10 years than similar students with low scores, but they were still less likely to early a college degree than their white and Asian high-scoring peers. Among the latter groups, 62 percent and 69 percent, respectively, received degrees.

The lead study author Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, said that such disparities become increasingly important as higher education plays a progressively greater role in the job market.

"We tend to focus on education from the perspective of the labor market. We're about connecting education to the workforce," Carnevale said. "What this report says is essentially the American education system takes the inequalities that are produced in the K-12 education system then reflects them into the higher education system, and then reflects them in the economy, and the cycle becomes anew."

The study used data from the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, the Consumer Expenditure Survey, and the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health to determine students' socioeconomic status. It also used the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which followed a cohort of kindergartners and 1st graders starting in 1999 and 2000 until 2018, and the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, which followed 10th and 12th graders until 2013.

Math scores were used to measure academic achievement in the main report because the reading data did not include scores for 12th grade. But the reading trends were similar, nonetheless, the report says.

According to the study, socioeconomic disparities become prevalent as early as kindergarten. Seventy-four percent of the students in the highest socioeconomic status quartile had above-median math scores, while only 26 percent of the students in the lowest income quartile had similarly high scores.

In 8th grade, 43 percent of the highest income students remain within the top half of scores. If their scores do fall in earlier years, more than half return to the top half again by the time they reach 8th grade. Only 18 percent of the lowest-income students are able to achieve top math scores in 8th grade, and less than 1 in 5 of those with test scores in the bottom half will be able to raise their grades by that time. 

The study did not examine indicators of generational wealth that may be transferred to increase a child's affluence in adulthood, such as homeownership. Carnevale said that including such factors would paint an even starker contrast between students of different socioeconomic statuses.

"It is in fact a system that guarantees the transmission of wealth from one generation to the other," Carnevale said. "Education has become a part of this now."

According to report, more-affluent students are often provided with more resources both in and out of school, which may benefit their education.  

"The issue here is that we've built something that is un-American and we've done it with American values," Carnevale said.

To narrow the opportunity gap, the report recommends that policymakers continue academic interventions in early education and throughout a student's K-12 experience, improve and expand high school counseling to assist students in transitioning to postsecondary education and training, and integrate career exploration and access to work experience at the high school and college level.

"The fact that children's test scores go up and down over time shows that there is room for intervention," Megan L. Fasules, an assistant research professor and a co-author of the report, said in a press release. "With smart policy changes, education can mitigate the effects of inequality."

Georgetown's report is not the first to examine inequities and the lack of social mobility for low-income and minority students. One study found that the achievement gap between the rich and poor has remained unchanged after 50 years. Another stated that to counter the achievement gap within middle-class schools, schools must create a "culture of equity."

The release of the report also follows the college admissions scandal, where students paid a well-connected college admissions adviser, who in turn artificially inflated their SAT/ACT scores and bribed college coaches to ensure the students a spot at top universities. For many, the scandal highlighted the inequities in barriers faced by low- and high-income students when it comes to applying for and attending college.

"In the end if you want to change class, it's about money, it's not about Shakespeare," Carnevale said.

Image Courtesy of Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

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