The Myth of Meritocracy: Outcomes from Pivotal Georgetown Study

As Americans continue to grapple with notions of access and fairness in education and broader society, we are regularly confronted with evidence that the playing field is not level for all students. We saw the power of wealth and privilege play out on a national stage through the Varsity Blues Scandal, and this summer, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce released a research study demonstrating that wealth and socioeconomic status profoundly influence educational and career outcomes.

The Georgetown study, titled “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose: Why Equally Talented Students Don’t Get Chances to Be All They Can Be,” highlights the challenges that lower income students face to rise beyond their circumstances, despite their academic gifts. The study analyzed several public data sets, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study: Kindergarten Class of 1998–99 and the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002, looking for relationships between affluence and student outcomes in the K-16 domain and in the labor market. The study focused on student performance on math assessments at different points in time and on the student’s socioeconomic status (SES), a combined measure of parental education, income and occupation.

This study provides a sobering reminder that talent doesn’t always rise to the top in the American system of education. Class is not necessarily destiny, but it plays a powerful role in influencing how students make their way through the educational system. The authors note that, in America, “it is often better to be rich than smart.”

Key Findings

The researchers found that “in general, money trumps talent” and that “innate ability has a much better chance to shine through for upper-class children.” Coming from a more advantaged family allowed students to better achieve their potential in higher education and in the labor market. Conversely, students from lower SES backgrounds were more likely to “fall and stay behind.” Many lower SES students starting off with great promise and strong academic scores were unable to translate that early promise into educational success and upward economic mobility.

The data shows that ability was by no means fixed as students made their way through the K-12 system, with student performance frequently rising and falling over time. Early successes did not always predict educational and career outcomes. Some students showing early promise stumbled, and affluence played a major role in determining if those students could recover: poor and working class students had a much harder time recovering from a fall than students of a higher socioeconomic status.

The study also found massive differences in score attainment beginning in the earliest school years. For kindergarten students whose families are in the top SES quartile, 74% scored in the top half in math, compared to the students in the bottom SES quartile, where only 26% of students scored above the median. Moving up in math scores seemed to be much more likely for affluent students: sixty percent of highest quartile SES kindergartners with bottom half-math scores made their way into the top half between K-8, compared to 31 percent of students from the lowest SES quartile. Falling down in percentile rankings was more likely for low SES students. Half of those low SES students who had high test scores in kindergarten had fallen below the median by the eighth grade.

The attainment gaps documented in the study persist throughout the educational trajectory. The researchers found that compared to academically matched peers, lower SES students are less likely to enroll in college, complete college degrees or have high SES as adults. The study states that “[o]nly 25 percent of kindergartners who have top-half math scores and come from families in the lowest SES quartile will earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by age 25. Meanwhile, 60 percent of kindergartners who have bottom-half math scores and come from families in the highest SES quartile will earn a college degree by age 25.” Examining the outcomes of 10th grade students, the researchers found that 16% of lowest SES students earned a bachelor’s degree within 10 years, compared to 46% of highest SES students.

Reasons for the Disparities and Recommendations for Action

The researchers hypothesized that the superior resources available to affluent children provided a protective safety net unavailable to lower SES students. Enriched environments, academic support, better neighborhoods and better-funded schools may have helped the privileged students rise above early academic challenges. Additionally, parental support may have played a pivotal role. There are tremendous disparities in the educational level of parents from low and high SES backgrounds. Ninety four percent of children from the highest SES quartile have at least one parent with a bachelor’s degree, compared to a mere four percent of those in the lowest SES quartile.

The researchers argue that interventions and changes in public policy are required to ensure that a student’s class does not predict that students educational and career outcomes. The researchers advocate multiple policies to remedy the disparities revealed in their study, including expanding pre-K academic interventions, increasing access to high-quality preschool programs, and continuing academic interventions throughout the student’s K-12 career. They recommend improving and expanding high school counseling and integrating career exploration and preparation into the advising process.

It is impossible to read the results of this study without feeling for the plight of lower-income students in America. Their talents are not bearing the same fruit as those of their more affluent peers. The playing field is not level. There is something in us, as Americans, that wants things to be fair. We have the ideal of a meritocracy, that you rise or fall based on your abilities. But lower-income students do not have the same opportunities, resources, or enriched environments to nurture their early talents to the same extent as their more affluent peers. We have work to do. 

This report speaks to fundamental societal issues: What kind of America do we want to have? Where should we invest our resources? How important is it to us to have a level playing field? We have to clarify our collective values and determine whether to make policy changes to help correct the massive gaps that persist in our society. 

If we decide that we don’t like these differences, the next big challenge is finding effective and scalable interventions to remedy the disparities. This is a complex problem. It does seem that early interventions have shown the most promise and returns. We can do a lot of lifting by kindergarten to create a foundation for learning, but, as this study reveals, the die is not cast at the conclusion of kindergarten. Additional supports must be put in place, or early promise will recede. This is an incredibly complex societal problem, but it’s important that we look at the data and have it inform our discussions and policies.  


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  • Dan Lipford

    Good article.

    I continue to believe that if IQ tests measure anything important – and I’m not assuming that they do – it’s the ability to learn, which is something that I suspect is measured to at least some degree by the better of those tests. And there appears to be a relationship between SES and IQ development.

    In the Conclusion to their study titled “Socioeconomic status and the growth of intelligence from infancy through adolescence” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4641149/), Stumm and Plomin wrote:

    “This study showed that children from lower SES backgrounds tend to
    perform on average worse on intelligence tests than children from more
    privileged homes as early as at the age of 2 years. Furthermore, SES
    accentuated these differences throughout childhood and adolescence: the
    6-point IQ difference in infancy between children from low and high SES
    homes almost tripled by the time the children were 16 years old. Our
    findings confirm changes in intelligence throughout early life and
    suggest a meaningful relationship between IQ growth and socioeconomic
    factors.”

    I suspect that both nature and nurture are at work here and that the problem, if not completely intractable — how would one propose to change both of those things simultaneously (or nearly so) beginning at infancy? — is going to be more difficult to solve than was the Gordian knot to untie.