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The Economic Effect on Education

Your ability to afford to live in a “good” community or a private school gives you access to immensely more than someone who can’t.


As a genderqueer Asian-American, Ry is extremely passionate about LGBTQ+ rights and advocacy — especially in regards to schools — with a focus on queer Asian-American history. They’ve also been involved with local youth advocacy groups, including their local March for Our Lives chapter, and is always looking for more ways to be involved as a young person.

I moved to Belmont in 2012, like many others did, amidst what might be called some sort of new wave, or a tech boom, if you will. At the time it was affordable (relatively), available, and it had nice schools.

Belmont lies in the center of the silicon valley, with as much distance between it and San Francisco as it does San Jose. So it’s safe to assume that it has the demographics to match the area around it.

According to the US Census, San Mateo County, as of 2010, was 42.3 percent white, 25.4 percent Latino or Hispanic, 24.5 percent Asian, and the other 8-or-so percent composed of African Americans, Pacific Islanders, and those who were biracial. Belmont, on the other hand, was 67.6 percent white.

But this was before we moved here. And we won’t get a more accurate sense of the breakdown until after 2020; a lot can change in 10 years. Still, though, Belmont is like many other cities and towns across the U.S.

There are no white picket fences, but it gives you classic Americana sprawled out across the Belmont Hills, sprinkles of new touches here and there.

Belmont, like many other suburban towns, is balancing on the tightrope; to adapt and change to be included in the new wave of the modern city, or to sit back and miss out on potential economic prosperity? (This conundrum as it relates to Belmont and its neighboring cities, by the way, has been detailed extensively by my friend Sam Hosmer for Carlmont Journalism)

As the demographics change, so do schools; public schools get money based on the property value of the area around them — a cyclical happening that is a whole other story — so when wealthier tech workers move into more areas of the U.S., they shape the world around them. This, of course, has its downsides. Gentrification, for example, has happened in cities like San Francisco, Oakland, and even Palo Alto because of the tech industry.

But while we’re here, let’s note that it’s impossible to separate race from class, just as it is impossible to erase the history of redlining, a systematic denial of services (like taking out a loan) to certain communities, largely consisting of minority groups. In the U.S., black folk suffer the most as a result of redlining — and economic disparity has only grown over the decades.

Now, let’s go back to classrooms. There’s much to be said about Carlmont’s history with racism, and while we’ll inevitably have to discuss race and class at their intersection, this is less about racism than it is simply about the way race influences class and shapes our classroom environments.

Those around you in AP or advanced classes may be those of the same skin tone, those of the same income bracket. Granted a few will fall outside the mean, many will be like you. In my case, many are people who moved here in the late 2000s to early 2010s because of tech jobs, while others are those who have had families here their whole life; while Belmont is merely a chapter in my life, it serves as the origin point for many.

The stereotypes of Asian kids taking more AP classes might, for some communities, be rooted in truth. In communities like Palo Alto, wealthier East Asian immigrant parents have laid down their roots for new generations, and while housing prices continue to get driven up by serious demand and scarcity in the area, public schools in Palo Alto are getting increasingly more funding.

It’s cyclical, but it happens. It’s not natural, but it’s implicit; we drift towards those who look like, talk like, act like us. We drift towards those who live lives similar to ours, and in doing so, we are gently separating our classrooms and courses by class and race. Though my experience may be more, to put it bluntly, colored, other communities see the effects of class and race very differently. x

One such community would be the poignant example of the Chicago Public Schools in predominantly black areas of the city compared to suburban schools with more “diverse” populations. Similar to Belmont, schools like mine, Adlai E. Stevenson High School, nestled away in the Northwest suburbs of Chicagoland, reflect the demographic compositions of their county very well with a total minority enrollment of 37% in a district that is around 70% White, 20% Asian, 5% Hispanic, and 2% Black.

Here’s where it gets interesting: only 5% of the student body is considered “disadvantaged.”

It’s when you examine the context of those statistics and the extremely low proportions of black Americans specifically that it becomes clear “diversity” prefers the rich when you’re operating in the good schools near Chicago, where redlining has kept black Americans out of quality districts and yet attracted Chinese and Indian immigrants to expose their children to the best opportunities capitalism has to offer.

Attempts to remediate for this clear link in which races are the most fiscally disadvantaged have been met with something between discontent and outrage. In fact, affirmative action policies usually catch heat because public opinion argues that it may reduce the overall academic quality or competitiveness of a school, further cementing the baseless opinion that a black child by virtue of living in a poorer district does not deserve better education since they are not as developed academically.

They would not be developed as much academically — they never had access to those resources in the first place.

This logic holds along the same lines of the white flight phenomenon back in the 1960s, where white Americans abandoned cities in favor of suburbia, often motivated by now considered to be bigoted concern that living with a racially diverse or really any significant black population would be detrimental for the futures of their children. Thus arises the argument that the socio needs to be taken out of socioeconomic admissions decisions and that only financial diversity and need should be considered in making admissions decisions. These kinds of policies at the university level have been extremely successful and even increased racial diversity as a result. Take Colorado-Boulder, for example. Admissions officers reviewed 478 applications, first under CU-Boulder’s race-based policy and then under the new class-based policy, with all racial identifiers removed. Officers ended up admitting 9 percent more underrepresented minority students under the race-blind policy than and 20 percent more students of very low socioeconomic status.

Yet interestingly enough, if you go back to the local level, the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) competitive selective-admissions public high schools like Lane Tech and Walter Payton and the income-based acceptance features of said admissions demonstrate that racial diversity may actually be more beneficial for academics than focusing on financial diversity.

In 2011, CPS decided to switch to a financial need based admissions system over the previous racial quotas they had pursued in filling their select admissions schools. Chicago’s racial quotas set pre-2011 produced a class with an average composite score of 98.5 in which 25% of students received subsidized lunch. The new income-based admissions policy brought no more subsidized lunch students despite reducing the average composite score to 98.0.

It’s an unsatisfying answer, but it appears that further research is required as to whether schools can equalize opportunity more by addressing racial diversity or boosting the admissions chances of those with financial need. The close, intersectional relationship of these two factors also ought to be taken into consideration. x

Although finances often perpetuate racial inequalities in education, as weird as it may sound, they can also increase diversity within schools. Take, for example, International Schools.

Private schools with international boarding programs cost extensive amounts of money, but on the flip side, provide American students interactions and a chance to build relationships with children hailing from unique backgrounds.

They offer insight to an otherwise closed off view of global cultural differences. Universities such as Brown University champion study abroad programs, and with Brown’s new workshops, they help dispel fears related to studying in a foreign nation and how to handle with the various social and cultural barriers one might face.

Dr. Kendall Brostuen, Brown University’s Director of International Programs and the Associate Dean of College elaborates how:

“The workshops evolved out of the essential areas of identity acknowledged in the diversity and inclusion report on the OIP website — race/ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion and disability.”

Moreover, it’s not just colleges who are engaging in such affairs. From K to 12, American institutions are investing more and more into student exchange programs and annual boarding for foreign students. Take for example my school, American Heritage in Florida. American Heritage is known for having a plethora of international students who speak a variety of languages. In fact, some of my closest friends are apart of the International Program. Since my first year at Heritage, being in a diverse environment of various economic and ethnic backgrounds has certainly been enlightening. This is a national trend, because as Duke University argues; “As the number of international students on U.S. college campuses continues to grow, their American classmates who actively interact with them are not only learning about foreign cultures but also enhancing their own self-confidence, leadership, quantitative skills, and other abilities long after they graduate”.

Yet, while the benefits of schools with International Students are high, they also link back to a pervasive problem in global society; socio-economic inequality. Not every school has the resources required to kick-start an international exchange program and not every student has the extra funding required to host or stay away.

According to the International Institute of Education, “the all-encompassing average cost of studying abroad in a foreign country hovers around $18,000 per semester or $36,000 per full academic year”. Although my family is fortunate enough to be able to squeeze $30k, they’re just barely making it and not every American family can cough up that kind of money. The US Census Bureau reports last year that, “The mean income per capita was $48,150” and “Real median household income was $61,372”. Imagine, a single working mom in urban America, struggling to provide for three kids with a salary of around $45,000 (assuming she has a stable, decent paying job). She works 9 to 9, six days a week and still has to juggle the responsibilities of a mother.

Now picture this, one of her children, a 14-year-old boy named Michael, wants to go to the international school just down the street. The school is a private institution and has an annual tuition of $33,450. Doing the math, if our single mother chooses to send Michael to his dream school, it would only leave her with hardly 11,500 dollars for the rest of the year.

To put things in perspective, our single mother still has to pay rent, the bills, her annual taxes, and pay for her two other kids to go to school. What if her daughter Lucy gets into the Dance Travel Team? What if her other son, John, breaks his leg at soccer practice? What if the house gets damaged due to unexpected flooding? The list of unexpected costs goes on and on. Funny thing is, it only takes one of those what if’s to send the house of cards tumbling down. Welcome to the American Struggle of 2018.

International schools are a blessing to modern education, but not every believer gets the privilege nor luck of attending them. Consequently, we end up back where we started, how financial inequality creates racial inequality.

I’d like to argue in this section that it doesn’t make racial inequality per se, but rather identity inequality, a form of tribal politics currently dividing our nation. Identity varies from person to person; you could identify with our hypothetical white single mom in Urban America or you could identify with a gay, wealthy middle class, African American. The concept of Identity is meant to give us a sense of commonality, of belonging. However, as Amy Chau argues in her book, “Tribal Politics; Group Identities and The Fate of Nations”, the US is one of the largest melting pots of identity, yet it systematically fails to classify and treat various identities fairly.

During the 2016 Election, Trump attempted to identify with rural, low to middle income, white Americans who felt as though their identity was being undermined by the Democrats.

However, he did this by targeting identities who were put on so-called “socio-political pedestals”—protected by recent progressivism. These identities ranged from Hispanic immigrants, non-binary LGBTQ+ members, Islamic youth, college-educated women, African American males, to name a few. The problem with both parties and how this ties back into Identity Inequality within our school system is one simple word, Groupism. Merriam Webster Dictionary defines ‘groupism’ as, the tendency to think and act as members of a group, the tendency to conform to the cultural pattern of a group at the expense of individualism and cultural diversity”.

International Schools demand specific types of students in their attempts to be “diverse”. If you are an International Student, you need to be rich enough to pay the extra tuition, have superior grades in comparison to your peers, demonstrate a talent or impressive extracurriculars, and display ‘honorable character’.

The impoverished student from Cambodia or the hard-working student from the political unstable DRC doesn’t make the list. But rather, elite students from Russia, China, Brazil, Spain, Saudi Arabia, and other developed economies get the golden ticket to study in the States. The Migration Policy Institute reports this year that the top 5 countries of origin for international students in the US were China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Canada. China made up 32%, India made up 17%, South Korea made up 5%, and the rest were in the single digits under %5. Shockingly enough, nowhere did Sub-Saharan Africa nor the Eastern European region make the leaderboard, regions known for stagnant development and most in need of international education opportunities.

As a result, when American students meet international kids, they get this idea that they all are smart, wealthy, and talented. American students never get to truly learn about the struggles of their peers in other nations, rather they get this idealized perspective that only perpetuates stereotypes and identity inequality abroad. Hence, as students, we don’t become global citizens but instead, apart of the problem.

Although this problem may seem to only affect international students, it hurts American students just as much, if not more. To apply for stay away programs and international schools, students must either be willing to pay, have an extraordinary talent or extracurricular ability, or simply be willing to swallow the costs. The system of approval is not inclusive and sets very strict guidelines for students who identify with minority groups brought down by the US economy.

This doesn’t provide equal growth for America’s most disadvantaged children.

I am very thankful for my family’s financial situation as a middle-class Hispanic household, but I know that at school many of my friends have been reduced to being ‘products’ just to get a decent education. When I say ‘products’, I refer to being the most marketable, attractive model student. I and several other kids at American Heritage have been subjected to such a mindset at the expense of our emotional and mental health.

One of my best friends, who is an international student from China and will be referring to by her ‘international name’, is Ceila. Ceila loves American schools, junk food, books, cartoons, and culture. The other day, before our AP Comparative Government and Politics class, she lamented to me how upset she was over being deferred in one of her college applications. To add context, Celia has one of the highest GPAs and test scores in the entire school, averaging straight A’s in nearly all AP classes. Never have I seen someone so dedicated to their studies and learning experience before, but Ceila took her deferral to heart. To her, it meant she wasn’t good enough, that she was a failure as a ‘product’. I reassured Ceila by telling her it was only one college out of many and that she was bound to get it into a better one.

However, this story only goes to show the impact our system has on not young adults, but children. Sadly though, American education leaders and policymakers are still turning a blind eye to this issue. At American Heritage In order to stay, get benefits, and have our concerns heard; we have to prove our worth by succeeding.

It’s a twisted cycle but in a market economy. it’s just the norm, right? x

Whether or not you see the effects of your economic standing on your education as directly as others do, the truth of the matter is that your education is directly influenced by what you can afford; your ability to afford to live in a “good” community or a private school gives you access to immensely more than someone who can’t, and though pressure in academia poses an immense threat, that in itself is a privilege. x

This article was written by Ry Lei, Mary Polupan, and Juliette Reyes (in order) and the views expressed and experiences mentioned in this article are reflective of their’s and their’s alone.