Meritocracy Study: Poor Grads Do As Well As Rich High School Dropouts

Meritocracy is a government or the holding of power by people selected on the basis of ability. Theoretically, that’s the kind of society the United States is, but new research indicates this could be a misconception.

According to a study conducted by Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, poor kids who graduate college stay in the bottom 20th income percentile about as much as rich college dropouts stay in the top 20th income percentile by 16 percent and 14 percent, respectively.

“Bottom-income children without a diploma have a 54% probability of remaining on the bottom rung as adults,” Reeves and Sawhill write. “Rates of downward mobility from the middle three quintiles are also very high for those without a diploma (42%, 37%, and 48% respectively). Only those born in the top quintile appear to enjoy some immunity from the effects of not completing high school.”

Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post, in an effort to figure out what’s going on, came to the following conclusion.

“Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings,” O’Brien notes. “Rich kids who can go work for the family business — and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that — or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead.”

The term for this treatment is called “opportunity hoarding,” O’Brien notes, adding that it includes “everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.”

Furthermore, even if this situation didn’t exist, it wouldn’t do much to help establish a meritocracy for poor college grads who work hard.

“That’s, in part, because they’re targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects. And even if they do get a good degree, at least when it comes to black families, they’re more likely to still live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities,” O’Brien explained.


It’s a bleak situation that Reeves and Sawhill present, and O’Brien’s point about college debt is well-founded, even if his assessment on poor job opportunities is a little overstated.

(U.S. News and World Report reported in July that it is definitely still in a student’s best interests to pursue a college degree, noting that college graduates earn higher pay than those who never do finish their degree plans.)

What do you think about the meritocracy study? Will you still get ahead in this world by working hard, or do the findings prove otherwise?

[Image via Washington Post, linked above]