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The wealth gap: how education fails to measure economic disadvantage

By on March 23, 2021 0

When Ajuah Helton was a student, she lacked financial aid by a few thousand dollars. What happened next caused him to deviate from his course.

His mother took a high interest federal loan that she was ultimately unable to repay. The following year, her mother wanted to avoid more loans, but had no other funds to draw on. Helton, with no options, left school for a semester to work to make up the difference.

“It’s with a mother who worked full time, had a university education, but had nothing to say, ‘Oh $ 5,000? Just let me go to my bank account or my purse and withdraw some money, ”Helton says.

Helton, who is black, graduated. She is now the National Director of KIPP Through College, a program designed to help students like her, get college degrees. But every day, she sees her own story reflected – the lack of family wealth shaping the trajectories of college students, especially black college students.

“This legacy plays out in a number of ways, starting with what a family has access to to pay for their education,” Helton said. “Often there is no mortgage to take out on a house. There are no long term savings.

America’s racial wealth gap is massive. The median black household with children has a net worth $ 300, compared to $ 47,250 for the median white family. These black families have 1% and Hispanic families have 8% of the average white family’s wealth.

However, the world of education often ignores wealth, focusing instead on family income, where racial disparities are lower. It’s rooted in how we study and talk about efforts to help economically disadvantaged students: low income students fare compared to their wealthier peers?

But a small number of new research suggests that wealth matters in a distinct way – and ignoring it means we might underestimate the extra support low-income students and schools need.

One of these studies, carried out by economist Rucker Johnson of the University of California at Berkeley, find that wealth directly affects the chances of students completing their college education. Johnson hopes this serves as a call to action, especially as low-income families will struggle to make up for the typical school disruption from the pandemic.

“The fact that we don’t typically measure wealth means that the default is an income conversation,” he said. Wealth, he said, “influences access to educational opportunities at pretty much every stage – I’m talking about affordability from kindergarten through college.”

The world of education thinks of family income. It rarely represents the family patrimony.

Family income matters. He predicts – and probably contribute to – the academic success of the pupils.

This is why the world of education explicitly considers income in so many ways, eligibility for early childhood education programs in federal schools funding the decisions. The country’s free and discounted lunch program is also based on family income.

Data from the free lunch, however rather imprecise, is widely used to measure economic disadvantage. “We are prepared to think only of income because of Title I or the free, discounted lunch,” said Mohammed Choudhury, director of innovation for San Antonio schools.

It wouldn’t be a problem if wealth and income measured the same thing. But they don’t, especially for black and Hispanic families.

A recent study found that the median black household with children received about 50% of the income of white families but held only 1% of the wealth. High-income, highly educated black Americans still have far less wealth than their white peers – a reflection of policies that have excluded black families from building real estate wealth and passing it on to future generations.

“Racial differences in income versus racial differences in wealth are of a completely different magnitude,” Johnson said.

Why wealth is important for families and for children

Wealth, criticism, tampons families in financial difficulty.

Wealthy families, regardless of their income, are in a better financial position to cope with tumultuous life events, such as divorce or disability. For low-income families, these same events often make it difficult to pay for food or health care, according to one. new study.

Wealth, the study explains, serves as a “private safety net”.

Wealth also shapes educational opportunities. This can affect where a family lives, and therefore where children attend elementary, middle and secondary school, as well as university. It may also influence whether these children experience material difficulties and the degree of stress in their household, which may affect their ability to focus on school.

Still, there isn’t much research on how wealth affects student performance in school. “I think that’s a gap,” said Dan Goldhaber, an education researcher at the University of Washington. “The data is simply not available.”

The small number of studies that address this question suggest that wealth matters. Students from wealthy families are much more likely to graduate from high school and complete college, according to an article from 2018. Even after controlling for other factors, including income, children from wealthy families were 10 percentage points more likely to graduate from college than those from low-income families.

“It’s important to understand it as a separate dimension of inequality,” said Fabian Pfeffer, a University of Michigan sociologist and author of the study.

The recent study by Johnson, the Berkeley researcher, goes further, suggesting that wealth is not only linked to academic achievement, but is the cause of it.

He found that when the value of a family’s home increased by about $ 50,000 in the years leading up to college, their child’s chances of completing college increased by 3 to 4 percentage points. This may be because students from wealthier families are more likely to attend selective, well-endowed schools that increase their chances of graduation.

“Is the income of the parents important? Yes, ”Johnson said. “But parental wealth and parental income combined matter a lot more.”

Liz Valladares, a young high school graduate who went to a KIPP college, experiences these effects firsthand. When COVID-19 hit, her mother’s working hours were cut. Without any further financial cushion, she had to tap into a university fund that she had launched a few years earlier. The added financial pressure means Valladares is attending her local community college in Los Angeles rather than the university she had planned.

“It was difficult for me,” Valladares said. “But as a parent, it was harder for her to say to her own child, ‘We can’t really afford this, you’re going to have to change your dream. “”

Valladares says school has been going well so far – with the help of KIPP money to pay for a laptop and books – and she hopes to transfer in a few years. But many students lack such support, and Studies show students are much more likely to drop out if they attend college in two years rather than four years.

What should we do about it?

Whether and how the country should close its wealth gap is the subject of heated debate. Some argue that we need to tackle the problem directly, with a wealth tax or reparations for the descendants of those enslaved.

Of course, school officials do not control economic policy. But they can decide how to react to the economic situation of the students. If our common understanding of economic disadvantage is wrong or incomplete, students who could benefit from additional help will do without.

“I’m really intrigued,” said Zahava Stadler, who works on funding schools for Education Trust, an education and civil rights group. “While I wouldn’t say we have enough information to know for sure this is the right approach, there is an intuitive logic to the idea that family wealth, just like income, is part of the picture. . “

Wealth already plays a notable role in education. States typically send additional funds for schools to communities with limited real estate wealth to make up for the fact that they cannot collect much in property taxes.

Doing more, Stadler said, will require better data. “We are hampered by data that is easy to obtain at the student level,” she said. “That’s very much the problem here.”

Perfect data can be difficult or intrusive to obtain. But some are finding how to measure economic hardship in new ways that extend beyond income.

Choudhury, the head of the San Antonio school, created a way to measure economic disadvantage at the neighborhood level. It includes not only median income, but also family structure, average education levels and homeownership rates, the latter dimension being designed to capture the wealth of the community. The approach has since been taken statewide under the Texas Schools Funding Formula.

“When we rely on one measure, we eliminate poverty in one shade,” Choudhury said.

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