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The American Dream Part 3: A Critical Review of the Georgetown Study Shows Academic Achievement is Still Key

A few weeks ago a study from Georgetown University was published that purports to show that access to the American Dream lies through existing family wealth and not academic achievement https://1gyhoq479ufd3yna29x7ubjn-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/FR-Born_to_win-schooled_to_lose.pdf . On first glance their conclusion seems to have some merit. For example, children in the lowest socioeconomic quartile of socioeconomic status (SES) who score highest in 10th grade math are less likely to end up in the upper half of SES than 10th graders who begin in the upper half and score lowest in 10th grade math. In other words high achievers from low SES are less likely to rise economically than low achievers from high SES are to remain at the higher SES where they began.

My initial reaction to this finding (prior to reading the full study) was to accept the conclusion at face value for the years studied (2002-2018). While doing so it seemed plain to me that, if true, this represented a substantial change in how today’s young participated in the American Dream in contrast to Americans born during the Depression and, subsequently, their children. If true it seemed to me that there had to be a tipping point, a point in time where participating in the American Dream and rising economically through academic achievement was no longer the prevailing route to success.

My supposition, where once academic achievement was more important than SES and then at some time “flipped”, was met with varying degrees of derision and scorn on the social media platform on which I originally encountered the study. I decided to more deeply investigate the study by looking at the American Dream over time. In Part one of this series I told the story of my Dad’s rise from poverty: The Cardboard in the Shoes Kid. My father rose where his siblings and most peers did not through access to college afforded by scholarships and the GI Bill. Part 2 was my story and that of my peers, as well as a re-telling of Gen X Senator Tim Scott’s American Dream success. In the absence of comparable studies that examined earlier times in U.S. history I sought first to demonstrate that, at least through prevalent oral history, academic achievement was an integral part of the American Dream prior to 2002.

As I started to organize my thoughts for this analysis I met a fascinating gentleman with a very helpful perspective regarding Baby Boomers. Our discussion prompted me to be a bit more skeptical about my assumptions. Bruce M. is an African American who recently retired as a very senior executive in the banking industry. His journey began much like my Dad’s with an athletic scholarship followed by grad school. I explained my issue with the study, its conclusion, and the near universal opinions on social media that childhood SES has always mattered more than academic achievement. After sharing my anecdotal analysis and noting how his own journey fit my hypothesis he offered the opinion that perhaps I had done nothing other than identify outliers, the extraordinary.

One of the classic biases introduced in research based on anecdote is that the researcher only finds stories that fit their hypothesis. In Part 2 I explicitly acknowledge this. Bruce M.’s perspective made me wonder if I was correct in my assumption but perhaps not quite as correct as I’d thought. Perhaps the “flipping point” was actually much earlier in time, much closer to 1960 than 1980.

So I did what I always do, and teach others to do, when engaging in these types of inquires: I returned to the source material to review the definitions that were used to determine what was being studied. Here, at the most basic level, the authors are studying the impact of pre-existing wealth (or its absence) and academic achievement (as measured by math scores in 10th grade) on achieving the American Dream. My reevaluation of their premises shows that their definition of the American Dream appears to be at odds with how most people understand it: simply being in the upper half of SES strata within 10 years of college graduation. What directed my inquiry and led me to decide that their ultimate conclusion does not seem to apply to earlier times is the more commonly understood definition of the American Dream: to RISE into a higher SES than that of your upbringing. Indeed, I would hazard a guess that most Americans would not consider simply maintaining the SES of your youth being the American Dream.

Rather, the opposite likely stands, that falling out of the SES of your upbringing would be considered a substantial marker of failure.

Defining the American Dream in this more conventional way alters the sensational “headline” conclusion of the Georgetown study. While this makes it much less attractive as “click bait” on social media it is my opinion that it actually makes it a more important study. When one seeks data to support substantive societal changes that expand access to this truer iteration of the American Dream, the studies findings actually point the way. While doing so it makes me wrong: it is likely that the influence of family wealth has always been a very strong marker to predict eventual occupation of a slot in the upper SES, the precise interpretation of the study data. It also makes me very right: rising to that new, higher SES, the true definition of the American Dream, is driven by academic achievement. Let’s look a bit closer at the details of the study through this more culturally accurate lens.

Much is made of the finding that low SES students with above average math scores have a lower chance of rising into the top half of SES than high SES students with low math scores have of remaining in that top half. While we see fewer high achievers in the high SES segment falling out of the top 50% than low achievers, we do not have any data for the converse, high achievers who rise still higher within that top SES segment. Is it possible that even in the highest quartile, that academic achievement is a stronger factor predicting a rise in SES? Even families in the top 5% SES hope and plan for their children to rise into a higher segment.

Defining the American Dream as simply occupying a space in the top 50%, or even the top 25% SES, is a radical departure from what is regularly quoted as the American Dream. Whether you are native born or an immigrant to the U.S., the American Dream is one of economic rise. Therein lies the essential problem with the Georgetown study and its flashy title (“Born to Win; Schooled to lose). Since SES is essentially a Bell Curve someone in a higher SES must drop lower in order for someone in a lower SES to rise. Occupancy is a term of stasis; the American Dream is a term that implies movement, specifically upward movement.

Why is this important? Why gild this lily so completely? The authors clearly wish to cast aspersions on what they presume are the unfair tactics that upper SES families use to help their offspring remain in the SES of their birth, regardless of academic achievement (a proxy presumably for merit). Thus, the emphasis on the “staying power” of the lower achievers in upper SES. Yet such a conclusion has no chance of effecting change. How does one prevent a parent from doing whatever it takes to support their child? There is no measure of movement within that top half and therefore no way to measure the effect of academic achievement within smaller bands. There is no way to create policy or make recommendations that would assist young people in lower SES quartiles based on the authors’ conclusion.

Happily, the true finding of this study is precisely the opposite of what they conclude, and most assuredly the opposite of their splashy click-bait title: the most direct route to achieve the American Dream, to rise economically, is precisely through academic achievement. While I think my new acquaintance Bruce M. is partly correct, that I simply identified the outstanding in Parts 1 and 2, I believe he is also as fundamentally incorrect as are the authors of the study. The outstanding rose. Like him, and my father and Senator Scott, the outstanding rose economically by utilizing their academic achievement. The American Dream is about rising up economically.

More importantly, if you come to this conclusion, that the study actually shows that upward movement is the result of academic achievement, you create a very strong case for change in how we educate our young. There is an especially strong case for how we educate the young who are born into the lower half of SES. The study shows that there is a significant drop off in performance or progress at both points where math aptitude is measured. At these pivotal points further achievement (continued excellence in the 10th grade, attendance in college, college graduation) is derailed. After demonstrating that academic achievement is the key, THIS is the real finding.

The derailment of academic achievement simply cries out for investigation to determine WHY this happens, followed by HOW it can be prevented.

Finding that existing family wealth protects the children of the better off from occupying a lower SES later in life than academic achievement is a non-actionable finding. The kids themselves would likely shrug: “Duh”. What this study actually shows is that my muse, the economist from Harvard, need not be so concerned about the country his daughter will grow up in. She will be surrounded by acquaintances who have risen from lower SES through academic achievement as was shown in the study. How many rise will depend in part on a more enlightened and opportunistic re-evaluation of the data affirming that academic achievement continues to be the vehicle that drives the true American Dream.

Those who are born to rise are derailed by our educational system, not our economic one. This is the true finding of the Georgetown study. This finding is amenable to action.

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