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The question of poor kids, education & income inequality

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If you want to address income inequality, fix higher education. That seems to be the current thinking in Washington, where President Obama has urged college administrators to better serve low-income students.

Some colleges have been following that guidance. The University of Chicago has been praised for its new campaign to recruit low-income students — a strategy that reduces the financial paperwork in the admissions process and guarantees low- and middle-income students summer employment while no longer expecting them to work during the academic year.

The fact that relatively few students from low-income backgrounds attend college is responsible in large part for the lack of upward mobility in the United States today, New York Times reporter David Leonhardt wrote. But the real problem is K-12 education.

Getting more poor kids to college is not a new idea. The effort began in earnest as far back as the 1960s, when the federal government set up scholarship programs to help low-income students attend college. But so far, nothing seems to have had a significant impact.

Which brings us to the real hole in the debate over income inequality in this country: the problems plaguing our K-12 education system.

Fifty years ago, it was possible for a child to grow up in a home where neither parent had a college degree and still attend a decent public school, go to college and become a professional. Seventy-five years ago, it was possible to grow up in a home where no one spoke English and still attend a decent public school, go to college and join the middle (if not upper) class.

Despite the quotas that were in place, making it difficult for racial and ethnic minorities to attend the most elite schools, state colleges were well within reach and provided a rigorous education for working-class kids. A high school graduate knew how to read, write and perform basic math.

Any college professor will tell you that’s not always the case anymore.

Today, for most low-income kids, college is merely a fantasy. If you finish high school, you are probably unprepared to attend a good four-year university, even if you could get in. And if you do, you will probably need multiple remedial courses.

About half of students entering the California State University system do, for instance.

According to 2011 research by Sean Reardon of Stanford University: “The achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families is roughly 30 to 40 percent larger among children born in 2001 than among those born 25 years earlier. In fact, it appears that the income achievement gap has been growing for at least 50 years.” There are many problems whose blame lies squarely with our universities — including the dumbing down of academic standards and an overemphasis on political correctness — leading to a less free-thinking society. Between the ever-rising price tag of tuition — and the fact that most low-income students don’t realize they won’t pay that sticker price — and the ever-expanding number of silly essay questions, students can be easily intimidated into not reaching high enough.

But colleges are not ultimately responsible for keeping poor students from moving up the income ladder in this country. For all the publicity that policies like the University of Chicago’s receive, they are hardly making a dent in the real problem. The shameful state of our primary and secondary schools cannot be fixed with a few changes in the college admissions process. By then, it’s too late.

James Piereson is the president of the William E. Simon Foundation, a private grantmaking foundation that supports charter schools. Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of “The Faculty Lounges: And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.”

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