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New book shows how education not equitable for all, how assets can make system part of American Dream

Monday, September 10, 2018

LAWRENCE — Education and hard work are the keys to success, children across the country have been told for generations. But evidence showing that is not entirely true for everyone has steadily grown. A new book co-authored by a University of Kansas faculty member points out how education does not pay off equally and calls for shifting the national education system to one that uses financial assets to make the American Dream available to all.

“Making Education Work for the Poor: The Potential of Children’s Savings Accounts,” by Melinda Lewis, associate professor of practice in the School of Social Welfare at KU, and William Elliott, former KU professor and now professor and director of the Center on Assets, Education and Inclusion at the University of Michigan, illuminates the widening disparities in educational opportunity while sharing research from across the country showing how young people are highly more likely to reach and complete college when they know from an early age they have assets that will help them pay for it.

While teachers and parents alike preach the importance of hard work and education for a bright future, research shows there is a more than 30 percent gap in college graduation rates by family income. The gaps persist even among students with strong academic preparation. Among those students, 74 percent from high socioeconomic status graduate from college, while only 41 percent of students of similar academic promise from low socioeconomic backgrounds do so.

“The book is about making the U.S. education system what we all want it to be: an equitable ladder of upward economic mobility,” Lewis said. “We all want to think opportunity is open to everyone. Indeed, our economy and our most cherished values all count on that being true. However, it will take policy change to redeem that promise. This book, then, isn’t just about finding a way to make education work for the economically disadvantaged, but how to structure and finance education in a way that gives everyone a chance to succeed through their own work and goals, no matter their background.”

To further illustrate how different the educational journey can be for people from different backgrounds, the authors share their own stories. Both are professors at major research universities with careers that converged in years of collegial collaboration. However, Lewis grew up in a relatively affluent family that saved for her education from birth. Elliott grew up in poverty, believing for years that a football scholarship would be his only chance to attend college. While both made it to higher education, persevered to graduation, received graduate degrees and became respected professionals in their field, Elliott was still paying off student debt into his 40s, while Lewis was able to leverage her earnings to save for her own children’s education almost immediately.

Lewis and Elliott have researched Child Savings Accounts, or CSAs, together for years. The accounts are opened automatically at a child’s birth with an initial deposit and savings incentives to help students fund higher education. In the book they share this research and findings of other scholars that illustrate how effective such early educational assets are at helping all students reach and complete college. At the end of 2016, nearly 313,000 children in 29 states had CSAs. The authors’ research illuminates the powerful effects such accounts have had for students, in forming what are known as "college saver identities." Students equipped with early educational assets are up to four times more likely to complete college than their peers without education savings, even when the accounts contain as little as $500.

And the effects are strongest among those who need asset interventions the most: Children from the lowest socioeconomic backgrounds with educational assets showed the highest increase in likelihood of reaching higher education. Weaving together findings from years of CSA research, Elliott and Lewis detail CSAs’ effects at various points in what they refer to as the “opportunity pipeline.” For example, students with dedicated educational assets showed greater improvements in math and reading scores.

Among the most telling statistics, research has shown that having a dedicated higher education savings account at birth can mitigate about 50 percent of the effect of economic hardship on children’s early social and emotional development — deficits that might otherwise deter low-income students from reaching higher education. In other words, without changing a family’s income, knowing money exists to help pay for college, even small amounts, can greatly increase the chance of reaching higher education, the authors write.

“This evidence is showing us more about how a ‘college saver’ identity can take root in children, families and an entire community,” Lewis said. “It also shows how having a strategy of saving for college can help frame how young people will encounter difficulties on the way to college as signals of education’s importance, but not its impossibility. The fact that we find substantial effects from a variety of scholars from a variety of perspectives on the value of early savings accounts builds a very strong case.”

The problem of wealth equality as it relates to education is one of thwarted opportunity, the authors argue. Regardless of academic ability, not all students have the same opportunity to reach higher education. Elliott and Lewis argue that a wealth-building agenda can help to make the American Dream of equitable opportunity returns from effort and education, a meaningful reality for all. “Making Education Work for the Poor” presents evidence for changing the education system to the one we want, from the one we have, in which opportunity is not equal.

“All is not well that ends well in higher education. Where you start in life matters for how well you are able to prosper,” Lewis said. “Hard work is very important, of course, but too many kids find that their efforts fail to realize the same rewards as those who start out ahead. That’s not the ‘deal’ people envision for our nation and its promises.”

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