Equal talent, equal outcomes? Not that simple, says new report on socioeconomic disparities and student success.

Family socioeconomic status (SES) significantly affects children’s chance of college attainment and career success, according to a new report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW). In “tracing children’s journeys…from their academic performance in childhood to their early career outcomes as young adults,” the researchers found that kindergartners from high-SES households with low scores on standardized math tests had a 71 percent chance of reaching high SES by age 25, while kindergartners from low-SES households with high test scores had only a 31 percent chance of doing the same. Overall, the report shows that high-achieving students from low-SES families have lower odds of college and career success than low-achieving students from high-SES families.

High-income students start with an advantage and recover more quickly

To better understand opportunity gaps associated with family SES—a measure that reflects household income, parents’ educational attainment, and parents’ occupational prestige—the CEW partnered with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to conduct a longitudinal study of public use data on students’ performance from kindergarten through college and into their early professional career. They found “substantial churn in children’s demonstrated abilities as they travel through the K–12 system and onward.” Economically disadvantaged students who started out with high math scores actually had a “relatively slim” chance of maintaining high scores, while their high-SES peers were more likely to maintain strong academic performance, benefitting from a supportive environment.

Affluence also appeared to improve students’ chance of academic improvement. The CEW reports that “kindergartners who score in the bottom half of math assessments are much more likely to move into the top half of all students by the eighth grade if they are in higher SES quartiles.” Report co-author Megan L. Fasules describes the “safety nets” provided by the highest-SES households, which spend nearly five times more on enrichment activities for students than the lowest-income households. “Many students stumble, but students from economically disadvantaged families are more likely to fall and never recover, even when they have the academic potential and performance similar to their affluent peers,” she told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Compared with similarly prepared low-SES peers, students from high-SES households are more likely to enroll in an associate’s or bachelor’s degree program, graduate from college, and land high-paying jobs.

Disparities especially pronounced for Black and Latinx students

These SES-related disparities are even greater when considering ethnic and racial identities. Among Black and Latinx tenth graders with high math scores, 51 percent and 46 percent, respectively, will earn a college degree within ten years—twice the rate of their peers with low math scores in the same demographic groups. However, those degree-attainment rates fall well below those of white and Asian students with high math scores, 62 percent and 69 percent of whom, respectively, will earn a degree.

Persistent academic resources needed for economic mobility

Saying that the variability in a child’s test scores across time signals the potential for mobility, the CEW calls for intervention, noting that “education can mitigate the effects of adverse environments.” Specifically, the authors urge policymakers to focus on several opportunities to close the gap and encourage enduring success:

  • Interventions in early childhood education and continuing academic interventions through the completion of high school;
  • Increased access to well-supported high school counselors who can guide students into postsecondary education and training; and
  • Early exposure of low-income students to a variety of educational and career pathways and provision of high-quality work experience in high school and college.
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