Education & Income Inequality: Glimmers of Hope

Does college really help the poor? That’s the question posed by a recent NY Times op-ed piece, concluding that yes, higher education helps — but also that, by itself, it’s not enough.

Don’t tell that to the thousands of working class parents and students each year who attend college for the first time, hoping to taste some of that proverbial slice of American pie. The rub is this: Although college helps lower-income students gain an income advantage over the course of a lifetime, it’s even more helpful for those whose families already benefit from years of higher education and generational wealth.

It’s one of the persistent societal challenges we face as a nation: Along with healthy development for all youth, closing the health gap, and stopping family violence, there are the goals of building financial capability for all and achieving equal opportunity and justice, according to the University of Nevada, Reno, Master of Social Work program.

If education doesn’t always help students achieve a prosperous and successful life, what other factors come into play? Part of the equation is where you happen to live and the resources available to you. For example, rural America has been especially affected by the technical divide separating those with access to IT skills and basics like Wi-Fi and that aren’t necessarily par for the course in “flyover country.”

Another factor is race — though, again, it depends on your family background and whether wealth has accumulated over several generations. This last point has been a point of discussion for college admission policies, which have begun to factor in economic status just as heavily as race to account for pockets of cultural difference — for example, a privileged African-American student from Atlanta, Georgia would likely have an advantage over an economically disadvantaged black teenager who grew up in the inner-city neighborhoods of Detroit, Michigan.

Since technology is so often a factor in the inequality of rural or urban classrooms — as opposed to those in more white, suburban districts — the new presence of technology like iPads in classrooms can make a significant difference for students unaccustomed to being connected 24/7.

Although many are quick to point out the pros and cons of access to technology such as iPads for school-age children, it could be argued that today’s high-tech atmosphere puts well-connected students at a decided advantage. It’s crucial that educators teach students how to become digitally literate. For example, students should be able to distinguish between legitimate, authoritative sources of information and biased websites of dubious quality.

Students with special needs can greatly benefit from the use of iPads; a great deal of assistive technology has been developed to help students with blindness, deafness, or motor skills-impairment; moreover, certain students on the autism spectrum may feel more comfortable channeling their communication with instructors and fellow students through a digital medium.

In addition to mobile technology like iPads being utilized in more classrooms, there are now ample financial resources for students from lower and middle-income families who wish to attend college — much of it accessible online. In addition to the FAFSA and federal education grants, there are numerous private scholarships available to students who are willing to put in the research time; just be aware of scholarship scams out there that will request a processing fee or credit card information in exchange for a financial award. Many teachers and school counselors are aware of these scams and will help students start the process during their junior and senior years of high school.

Moreover, according to Asset Panda, “Organizations like Close the Gap and the FCC are working to provide Internet access to students nationwide. Increased public funding for technology makes it possible for schools to provide internet capable devices to their students.” Moving forward, continued access to technology connecting students to the outside world will provide students in economically depressed districts with opportunities they may not ordinarily have been exposed to, making these types of programs critical to closing the technology gap.

Parents and policymakers should also be aware that education — higher education, in particular — has been politicized, largely by some conservatives on the right who view professors and college curricula as tilted in favor of a largely progressive elite. All we can do, then, is to encourage students and parents to differentiate between opinion and fact when evaluating information online and in the media.

Who do you think is winning the battle of private versus public funding of education? Do you think the recent teacher strikes in Oklahoma and West Virginia are increasing awareness of teachers’ plights? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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