In America, it's better to be born rich than smart

In America, it's better to be born rich than smart
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That’s not how we Americans like to think of ourselves, but it’s the sad bottom line of a study released this week showing how less-than-bright kids from well-off families are more likely to succeed than smart kids from poor families.

That contradicts a lot of the myths we learned in school about this being the land of opportunity, a land where access to education should be a great leveler.

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It doesn’t have to be like that, however. There are ways to turn it around, and Congress plays a key role.

The “Born to Win, Schooled to Lose” report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce lays out the inequities: Children with low test scores from high-income families have a 71 percent chance of being affluent adults by the age of 25, compared to only a 31 percent chance for poor children with high test scores.

Why does this happen? The report points to safety nets that well-off students have that keep them on track — nets that poor kids lack. Thus, when poor kids fall behind, they stay behind.

Even poor students who continue to excel in school and post high test scores can end up falling behind in life — a phenomenon sometimes called  the “excellence gap." Despite their promise, these students are far less likely to take college entrance exams, apply for federal college aid or reach for competitive colleges. All too often, they don’t apply to any college.

So this is our fate as a nation, a continuing slide into the rich getting richer, the poor getting poorer, regardless of innate talent? Not necessarily.

I spent two years researching a book on what happens to children from low-income families. On the surface, things look grim. While there has been an impressive surge in the number of low-income, minority students going to college, their success rate — the number, for example, earning bachelor’s degrees within six years — remains flat.

But I found several reasons to be optimistic that things can change quickly. Three reasons, to be exact.

First, the big charter school networks that serve students from high-poverty families have pioneered strategies to greatly boost the college success rates for their alumni. Those alumni are earning degrees at rates that range from two to four times better than expected.

Also good news: In cities such as New York, Miami, San Antonio and Newark, the charter networks have teamed up with traditional school districts to pass along their lessons learned. This could spread.

Second, there has been a surge in the number of organizations providing smart, data driven college advising to students in high schools that lack it. Groups such as College Advising Corps steer students away from commuter universities where the odds of them earning a degree are no better than 25 percent and into universities where the odds are double that. High performing students get sent to state flagship universities where the odds are 80 percent, and the highest performing students end up in elite colleges where the odds rise to 90 percent.

Finally, many colleges, especially the top universities, have reshaped the way they do business to not only admit more low-income students but ensure that those students walk away with degrees.

One simple way: Take in more high performing transfer students from community colleges, which is where many of this country’s low-income students end up. UCLA has been doing this successfully for years, and other universities are forming new partnerships to boost those transfers.

In Northern Virginia, George Mason’s Advance Partnership with Northern Virginia Community College could serve as a template for the rest of the country.

The Aspen Institute-guided American Talent Initiative, which has a goal of enrolling and graduating an additional 50,000 lower-income students at the 318 colleges and universities that consistently graduate at least 70 percent of their students, is making good progress.

Here’s the most promising part of this: These three separate pushes to boost college success rates for low-income students — the charter networks, the counseling groups and the universities taking this on — barely coordinate with one another. Consider the possibilities when they start working together.

If more school districts partner with charter networks around college success and start tracking their alumni through colleges, far fewer smart kids from low-income families would get left behind.

None of this happens without support from the federal government, ranging from critical financial aid for low-income students to grants that help the top charter networks — the college success pioneers here — expand at a time they are becoming political unpopular in many states for reasons that have nothing to do with student outcomes or how their alumni fare in college.

The Georgetown University report has it right. In today’s America, it is better to be rich than smart. But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

Richard Whitmire, former president of the Education Writers Association, is the author of six books on education issues, ranging from boys falling behind in school to Michelle Rhee's time as chancellor of Washington D.C. schools. His latest book is "The Breakthrough: How Ending Diploma Disparities Can Change the Face of America."