Opportunity (and mentor) hoarding in America

by Matthew Hagler & Jean Rhodes

The latest admissions scandal is just a salacious example of the broad, systematic inequality in education that gives certain young people a major leg up. We all know that unequal educational opportunity does not start during students’ senior year of high school. Less advantaged students are consigned to under-resourced schools with more novice teachers, overcrowded classes, few advanced placement courses, and more limited extracurricular activities. These and other factors constrain their opportunities to discover their talents and, importantly, to find the mentors who could help them navigate a path to the future.

Drawing on large, nationally representative data sets, we have shown that students from low socioeconomic backgrounds are much less likely to make meaningful connections in high school with teachers, coaches, guidance counselors, and others – the kinds of adults who can write  recommendations, connect students to jobs and internships, and give personalized advice on college admissions. Then, concentrated in lower quality colleges and burdened with student debt, they are much less likely to connect with professors and academic staff. Yet when they do manage to find mentors, they get better grades and, according to large Gallup surveys, are more likely to graduate and find satisfying jobs.

In fact, less privileged students actually derive significantly more benefits from social capital and resources than their more privileged peers. Drawing on a large national sample of high school graduates, researchers at Florida State University recently showed that having a natural mentor promoted college attendance among poor and working-class youth but not among middle and upper-class youth. Working with the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health (Add Health) at least five different research teams (including ours) have shown that associations between school-based caring adults and later educational attainment are strongest when youth are from marginalized socioeconomic and racial backgrounds.

In the 19th century, Ernst Heinrich Weber, a German physician, conducted pioneering research on just-noticeable difference, in which he found that humans can detect changes in sensory stimuli, like light, only under relatively sensory deprived-conditions, like a dark room. Yet, in sensory-rich conditions, like bright room, they do not notice when a light becomes brighter. This phenomenon, dubbed Weber’s Law, has since been applied and replicated in socioeconomic phenomena. For example, if a family is worth three million dollars, another $50,000 does not meaningfully impact its quality of life, while that same amount would be life-changing for any of the millions of families living in poverty. The same holds true for educational opportunities. Research shows that attending a top-tier college will not noticeably affect the long-term earning potential and opportunities of an already-privileged student.  It does, however, make an enormous difference to a low-income, first generation college student who can benefit more from the extensive educational opportunities, student support services, and mentoring relationships that top colleges afford.

For more privileged kids, the mentoring and other advantages conferred by attending a higher ranked college are barely perceptible. Their dense and privileged social networks will compensate for any lost opportunities long after they graduate. But for the equally deserving but less privileged students, it could make a world of difference.

Matthew Hagler, MA is a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow in the clinical psychology doctoral program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.