I read two articles recently that got me thinking about when exactly it is that individuals, as viewed by society, become “responsible” for their own outcomes, and when they are still viewed as deserving of equal opportunity. When children are born into environments that don’t provide them with resources they need to develop physically, mentally, or socially, we generally see this as unfair, because it’s not the child’s “fault” that she is not succeeding. Thus, this child is deserving of opportunity. At some point, though, an adult’s unemployment, sickness, and hunger is her own “fault,” as equal outcomes are not guaranteed for all across society (though maybe a basic social protection floor should be).

When does one cross this threshold? One answer, though by no means the only one, seems to be when a student enters college. Students in their first year if college are around 18 years old, a boundary for legal liability in many states, and – if they are lucky enough to be in college – have access to opportunities to advancement and stable employment that higher education is (at least traditionally thought to be) able to provide.


Not so fast, suggests articles from both Charlotte Leslie of the Guardian and Jason DeParle of the New York Times. Leslie writes that there is a tendency to assume that the answer to a lack of social mobility is to “ensure that students from a state-educated background have as good a chance of going on to higher education as their privately educated peers.” However, she goes on to cites research that shatters this “comfortable myth,” research that showed that even when students from state school did as well as those from private ones academically, they made less money and had significantly less access to professions. Why? because of less knowledge as to how to achieve their ambition, fewer soft skills, less access to useful networks (written about earlier in this post), and less work experience from work and internships.

Of course that gap only occurs when there is equal academic achievement in groups with differential access to resources growing up. DeParle’s piece chronicles the college experience of three youth in Galveston, Texas. “Everyone wants to think of education as an equalizer,” the article quotes, “the place where upward mobility gets started.” However, as the article illustrates, the economic, social, and cultural strains on these low-income youth make it significantly more difficult for them to succeed in college. Thus, the article suggests a much more bleak conclusion, namely that “It’s becoming increasingly unlikely that a low-income student, no matter how intrinsically bright, moves up the socioeconomic ladder.”

What these findings suggest to me is that it is increasingly difficult to draw a line after which the effects of an under-resourced background will cease to be felt. If someone attended a very poor high school, then simply placing them in college will not be enough. Individuals need social, economic, and health supports throughout their lives in order to thrive. For the most privileged amongst us, we receive that from our family, friends, social and professional networks. For the less privileged, it’s a struggle to keep up not only in their childhood or teenage years, but throughout the entire course of their lives.

Photo Credit: Walt Jabsco