Kate McCabe / Gavel Media

The Problem with the US Education System

It is no secret that there is a system, exploited by the wealthy, that helps funnel the children of the rich into elite universities. This system is criticized for rewarding status instead of hard work and for preventing lower-income students from having equal opportunities. As the college admissions process becomes more and more complex and rigorous, unfair advantages in the process are becoming more scandalous. If we are evaluating the issue of social mobility by using elite college admissions as a marker for predicted success, we must acknowledge the known flaws of the admission process. In other words, in knowing that from thousands of great applications only a handful will get chosen, how do we give everyone the opportunity to have a great application in the first place? This is not to say that there aren’t issues with current methods of selectivity, but the issue of college admissions cannot be evaluated all at once.

Private K-12 schools can be thought of as microcosms for elite universities. Self-advocacy skills, learning how to build relationships with professors, and an overall feeling of belonging in elite settings are just some characteristics learned in these schools that perpetuate a system in place for the wealthy. Anthony Abraham Jack, sociologist and Assistant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has conducted research on the experience of low-income students at elite universities. Jack graduated from Harvard and attended a prestigious private school, Gulliver, in Miami. He is not the traditional student of these schools, though—he is Black, was raised by his single mother on her security guard salary, attended Gulliver with a scholarship his senior year, and transferred to Harvard from Amherst College. His research delves into a phenomenon he discovered through experience—how low-income students struggle to acclimate to the culture of elite colleges when they come from public high schools. This suggests that the problem of unequal opportunities stems beyond external factors, such as tutors and school facilities.

When faced with inequality, many are quick to let their resentment for the wealthy influence their opinions. Attempting to equalize opportunity should not mean taking them away from people, even if it seems unfair that they have them in the first place. With education, we can’t dilute quality to distribute opportunity. It is not the same as wealth. The goal should be to have quality education reach people from all socioeconomic backgrounds. Although there are highly renowned public schools, these often end up being elitist as well. 

Polarlist is a website that has ranked the best high schools in the U.S., based on the number of matriculations for Harvard, Princeton, and MIT. According to their site, the criteria for choosing these three schools is based on their accessibility compared to other highly selective universities. Amongst the top 20 high schools, half are public schools, only four represent “a school with higher socioeconomic diversity,” all with published demographics are predominantly white and Asian, and the majority are located in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and California.

There are many systems in place to help students move forward, such as private schools. However, these do not seem to be the main problem with social mobility. Instead, it’s how low-income students and minorities are being left behind. Clearly, public schools have the ability to be excellent institutions, but these models of public education are mostly planted in wealthy areas and are often magnet schools. To enter many of these prestigious public high schools, students have to go through a strict application process, meaning they have had to prepare for this from a fairly young age. The amount of planning and dedication to secure a spot in a school like this is not easy to obtain for many students, especially those that don’t have secure family structures to guide them through this process.

The quality of public education has been an issue for a long time, but as social inequality increases and intergenerational social mobility decreases, making sure low-income students are not left behind is becoming more and more critical. It is not just a matter of injustice; it is a matter of economic well being. And the issue is made worse by the fact that the government is not treating this disparity as a matter of importance. While accessibility to elite higher education seems to be a popular target, the problem with the K-12 education system in the US begins a lot earlier and is far more pressing.