Mar 24, 2019

The perfectly legal inequalities in America's rigged educational system

Cover of Bloomberg Businessweek.

Nowhere are Americans more acutely aware of the system being rigged against them than in the area of education: That's why the Varsity Blues corruption scandal has resonated so widely with the general public.

The real scandal, as ever, isn't what's illegal: It's what's legal. We put together a partial list of ways in which the American educational system is rigged in favor of the rich and powerful.

The inequality begins in pre-K, where rich kids go to school and poor kids don't. That's partly because, in most states, child care costs more than in-state college tuition. The result? The gap between rich and poor kids' math and reading skills has been growing for decades.

  • Once school begins, white students receive $2,226 more funding per year than students of color, thanks to locally funded educational systems. Disadvantaged students end up 3–4 years behind their more affluent peers. Of course, the richest families bypass the public education system entirely and spend tens of thousands of dollars per year to educate their children privately. They also dominate selective public schools.
  • Getting into college is easier for richer children, who have the advantage of $200-an-hour tutoring. Rich kids are also orders of magnitude more likely to get recruited to elite institutions. Add in legacy admissions and other ways of buying your way into selective colleges, and the result is that students from the 1% are 77 times more likely to attend an Ivy League school than students coming from families earning less than $30,000 a year.
  • College is largely unaffordable for the poor, who are also excluded from the pervasive institution of unpaid internships. The rich, meanwhile, benefit from massive tax expenditures subsidizing their tuition costs.

Why it matters: Inequality of educational opportunity doesn't just deprive the economy of trillions of dollars' worth of untapped human capital. Its ubiquity and visibility also makes it a key breeding ground for resentment and corruption anxiety within the 99%.

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