The shape of educational inequality

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Science Advances  15 Jul 2020:
Vol. 6, no. 29, eaaz5954
DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aaz5954


Hundreds of thousands of students drop out of school each year in the United States, despite billions of dollars of funding and myriad educational reforms. Existing research tends to look at the effect of easily measurable student characteristics. However, a vast number of harder-to-measure student traits, skills, and resources affect educational success. We present a conceptual framework for the cumulative effect of all factors, which we call student capital. We develop a method for estimating student capital in groups of students and find that student capital is distributed exponentially in each of 140 cohorts of community college students. Students’ ability to be successful does not behave like standard tests of intelligence. Instead, it acts like a limited resource, distributed unequally. The results suggest that rather than removing barriers related to easily measured characteristics, interventions should be focused on building up the skills and resources needed to be successful in school.

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