Equalize Educational Opportunity

Being born into wealth is a lucky accident, not a mark of intelligence. Children of rich parents aren't born smarter than others. Yet parental wealth continues to be a major factor in determining if and where a child will go to college.

This is not the way it is supposed to be in nation that idealizes the notion that any child can rise from modest circumstances to greatness. Some people have done this, of course, but many more have been locked out of the American Dream because of their economic status.

There are dramatic and disturbing differences in educational attainment based on family income.

According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the high school dropout rate for young people ages 16 to 24 from families in the lowest income quartile was three times higher than the dropout rate for students from the wealthiest quartile.

The college graduation rate also differs by income. A 2014 White House report titled "Increasing Opportunity for Low-Income Students" states: "While half of all people from high-income families have a bachelor's degree by age 25, just 1 in 10 people from low-income families do."

And the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, where I am executive director, issued a study earlier this year showing that at our nation's most selective colleges and universities a mere 3 percent of students come from families with the lowest 25 percent of incomes, while 72 percent of students come from the wealthiest quartile of families. So for every poor student at these top schools, there are 24 rich students.

We should not throw up our hands and say these huge gaps in educational opportunity are inevitable. That's nonsense. The Cooke Foundation finds thousands of outstanding low- income applicants for it scholarships every year. As a nation, we just need to devote special attention to finding the high-achieving students from low-income families who have proven that they can overcome the admittedly enormous obstacles imposed by poverty and nonetheless succeed at our nation's most academically rigorous colleges and universities. The data are clear that they will thrive - if only given the opportunity.

Many scholars have said that for most people, where you go to college doesn't matter much. But a Cooke Foundation study found that outstanding low-income students graduate at a much higher rate - equal to the rate of wealthy students - if they attend a very selective college. This goes against the common belief that low-income students are better off at less selective schools.

Here are some concrete reforms needed to open up the doors of equal educational opportunity to all, regardless of family income:

First, in the early grades schools should stop relying on parental advocacy as the key factor to determine whether a child is tested for high academic ability. A wealthy parent is far more likely than a low-income parent to ask that his or her child take such a test. Instead, schools should test all children to identify those with the greatest potential to excel.

Second, schools should develop improved curricula to prevent backsliding by low-income students who test at advanced levels in early grades. A Cooke Foundation study documents how students below the median income level who start school performing at high levels lose academic ground at every level of schooling.

Third, we should provide some degree of test preparation for all applicants to selective-entrance primary and secondary schools as well as colleges. Affluent parents can afford to spend thousands of dollars on test preparation courses and tutoring for their children; low-income parents cannot. We need to at least start to level the playing field.

Fourth, a single test should not be the entry point for all pre-college programs that cater to high-achieving youngsters. Instead, admissions to some programs should also be based on capabilities in such areas as the arts, poetry, literature generally and science.

Finally, in our nation of immigrants there are vast numbers of students who enter school not speaking English but who are very bright and talented. Unfortunately, these students are not being challenged because the focus of their course work is simply to learn English. NPR has reported that many schools don't even test these students learning English for so-called "giftedness." The problem is particularly severe for undocumented students.

Instituting these changes will benefit not just students from struggling families, but our entire nation. Right now, many young people who could grow up to create jobs, strengthen our economy, make scientific discoveries, provide medical care, teach, improve our national security and make other important contributions never reach their full potential. Instead of losing their talents, we should be using them.

Young Americans from families of modest means need a pathway to college based not on an aristocracy of parental wealth, but on the meritocracy of their own achievements.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which has awarded about $147 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 high-achieving students from low-income families and $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.