In the long run, reducing inequality without reforming our education system may be impossible, because the tide is flowing so strongly in the opposite direction. Twenty-five years ago only a third of public school students were low-income (eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch). Today, for the first time since the data has been compiled, a majority are.[iii]
While the achievement gap between races is narrowing, the gap between poor and non-poor students has widened. The gap in standardized test scores between affluent students (those whose families earn more than 90 percent of the population) and low-income students (those whose families earn less than 90 percent of the population) has grown by about 40 percent since the 1960s, according to Stanford University’s Sean F. Reardon. Today it is nearly double the gap between whites and blacks.[iv] This study used data that ended just before the Great Recession, which probably made the gap worse.
A more recent study found that the gap in college enrollment between families making $108,650 or more a year and those making $34,160 or less has narrowed since 1970, from 46 percentage points to 37. But the gap in college completion has grown. Seventy-seven percent of the higher-income group earns a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24, while only 9 percent of the lower-income group does.[v]
In today’s world, education levels dictate incomes. As the graph below indicates, the spread between income levels of those with and without college degrees has widened dramatically over the last 50 years.
These two realities—the education gap widening and education levels mattering more in the job market—have created a vicious cycle. As Professor Reardon says, “The combination of these trends creates a feedback mechanism that may decrease intergenerational mobility. As the children of the rich do better in school, and those who do better in school are more likely to become rich, we risk producing an even more unequal and economically polarized society.”[vi]