The Smartest Low Income Kids Don't Get Ahead In Life Like Mediocre Rich Kids

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A study of kindergarteners shows that education is not the great equalizer that Americans often think it is

Here’s what we’d like to think: that in the United States, no matter what you’re born with, you can succeed, and even thrive, as long as you have an education and determination. That even if you don’t come from money, you can work hard, get a scholarship, go to the best college, and then land an amazing job.

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But that’s often not the case – and now we have more proof. A new study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce has found that wealth is a better predictor of whether you’ll eventually be well off than education or how smart you are. In fact, being smart and not coming from an affluent background is a way worse straw to pull than starting off affluent and not succeeding academically.

In their report, Born to Win, Schooled to Lose: Why Equally Talented Students Don’t Get Equal Chances to Be All They Can Be, researchers found that while 70 percent of affluent kids with low test scores were affluent by age 25, only 30 percent of poor kids with high tests scores were. In other words: it’s easy to stay wealthy when you already are, and it’s hard to move up the socioeconomic ladder even when you’re talented and study.

“If you’re born well off and you don’t show talent, you have a better chance of ending up in a good job than if you’re a low-income, talented student,” Tony Carnavale, director of the center, told USA Today.

The study followed a group of kindergarteners across the nation beginning in 1989 and then throughout their schooling and early employment, and what it found was depressing, even though it enforces a lot of what we already know: kindergarteners from lower income upbringings are already largely behind their wealthier counterparts from Day 1, and even the ones with high test scores face a series of barriers throughout their lives that make it hard to advance their position. At the same time, their mediocre classmates who have an economic advantage often find it easy to sail ahead no matter what.

Image via Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

To put it simply: “It’s not a meritocracy, it is more and more an aristocracy posing as a meritocracy,” Carnavale said.

Why is this the case? There are probably several reasons. First and foremost, well-off kids have more resources to help them, from tutors to stable households, to parents who lie and cheat.

Secondly, kids in lower economic classes are also in worse neighborhoods, and therefore, worse school systems – they have fewer resources both at home and at school.

Next, the study found that even kids from low-income families who continued to achieve throughout high school didn’t often get the same higher-level education opportunities: their mediocre, rich peers opt for the best schools that let them in, while they take the best options they can afford. Down the road, going to better, more elite schools results in better job opportunities.

All in all, a student from a poor family with high test scores has a four in ten chance of graduating from college within ten years, while a student from a rich family with low test scores has a five in ten change of the same thing.

And there’s another piece of bad news (that reinforces what we already know): kids who aren’t white struggle way more to succeed, both throughout school and then into the real world. And even black kids who get great test score or who are themselves affluent struggle when up against more privileged caucasian kids.

For example, six in 10 lower income black students who had high test schools in kindergarten see their scores drop by eighth grade, compared to four in ten white students. Even rich black students are twice as likely to see their scores drop in that time period as rich white students.

Image via Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

What can we possibly do about this broken system that promotes the lucky instead of the driven? The study suggests even more early childhood interventions, more high school counseling, and more career exploration and work experience opportunities during high school for kids without as many advantages.

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