While being inundated with news of wealthy parents allegedly bribing universities to get their kids unearned advantages, I couldn’t stop thinking of one of my social work students at the University of Southern Mississippi.
This student is a naturalized U.S. citizen, a person of color, has worked throughout her schooling, and she speaks another language.
A couple of years ago, to cover a study abroad trip, she and her mother cooked and sold over 100 plates of food. She has spent hundreds of hours leading campus clubs, volunteering, doing extra research for her scholarship and networking at every opportunity.
She recently was accepted to a prestigious Northern University for a dual master’s degree program. She has worked hard for everything she has achieved and has defied numerous odds. Even so, she will almost certainly have financial stress and uncertainty as she continues her education, and will likely face the challenge of paying back student loans on a social worker’s income.
Many will take her story as evidence our system works — that we reward hard work and talent. Having taught for almost a decade at a university in the poorest state, I can tell you how many obstacles our students must overcome — and many never make it. Many of those students have huge amounts of talent and life experience — they know what it means to “roll coins to make rent.”
A 2018 Harvard University study compared five countries’ perceptions of social mobility against actual levels. It found that Americans tended to be overly optimistic, believing the United States is a meritocracy where all have equal access to rise to the top. Those surveyed estimated someone born in the bottom 20 percent of earners had an 11.7 percent chance of reaching the top 20 percent of earners as an adult. The real chance is only 7.8 percent. Among children of color, these odds are lower.
Another study last year involving researchers from the U.S. Census Bureau, UCLA, Stanford and Harvard examined Census race data and parent/child tax records to compare generational earnings. While 10.6 percent of whites from the bottom fifth make it into the top fifth, only 2.5 percent of black children do. The numbers are not much higher for American Indian and Hispanic children.
White children were also better protected from downward mobility. White children whose parents were in the top fifth income bracket had a 41.1 percent chance of staying in the top fifth as adults. Black children whose parents were in the top fifth had only an 18 percent chance of remaining in that bracket.
The most disheartening part of these bribery allegations has been people who have said, “This is news, how?” We have grown so accustomed to the idea that money equals opportunity and success, and that the rich will do whatever it takes for their children to stay on top.
I am hopeful our country can use this scandal as a chance to discuss concepts such as merit, opportunity, race and equity. Even more, I am hopeful we can start to be honest with our students and children that the playing field is not level — but that we are all trying to fix that.