The issue of schooling and related choices has become extremely topical in the contemporary highly competitive world where children enter the race for social recognition and professional attainment since early years. Starting from the kindergarten, parents of modern children face numerous choices regarding education and development of their offspring that have far-reaching consequences and usually largely set the foundation for their adulthood and chances for high education and professional employment. Schooling choices are especially diverse and difficult in developed countries like the USA where parents can choose between public and private schools, as well as having an option of charter and magnet schools. However, the choice may be as a rule reduced to the one between public and private schooling, which is a topic that interests numerous researchers who strive to determine factors that motivate parents in this process.
In general, there exists a stereotypical view that race is an essential factor relating to school choice and that White children on average receive better education and show higher achievement rates than representatives of other races and ethnic minorities. Although it was really so in the middle and late 20th century and there still exists a slight racial difference in this respect, the current paper upholds a view that race may no longer be deemed an important factor for school choice. A wide range of policies and legislations adopted in the past with the purpose of eliminating racial discrimination and implementing affirmative action plans have been successful and race is no longer the major cause of inequality among school children. In turn, socioeconomic class has become the primary factor for school choice that is instrumental both for the process of choosing an educational facility for children and their academic achievement, which in turn affects the likelihood of continued education in college. Critical analysis of several credible literature sources supports this viewpoint that school choice of modern US parents is influenced by their social class and economic background more than by their race and ethnicity that have seized to play such an important role as in the past. However, it should be noted that this hypothesis concerns primarily middle-class families and may not be applicable to low-income families for whom adverse impacts of their socioeconomic class on education and school choice are predicted to be exacerbated by impacts relating to race and belonging to an ethnic minority.
Thus, the current paper is aimed at presenting results of an empirical study conducted in the form of interviews with a view to proving that nowadays race is not a significant factor for school choice, being instead replaced by socioeconomic class as the key predictor of this choice, as well as children’s achievement rates and college attendance. Moreover, this shift has serious implications for future researches and educational policies as currently there is much talk about ways of decreasing educational inequality in the USA, yet researchers and policy-makers base their efforts on an assumption that race remains a key factor, which is an erroneous standpoint. Therefore, more studies that focus on socioeconomic class as the key factor for school choice are required so that new policies could be developed with a view of effectively addressing the issue of educational inequality that deprives millions of people of a chance for upwards social mobility and well-paid employment.
Brief Literature Review
It is a general consensus of the overwhelming majority of existing researches that school choice is significantly affected by race, social class, economic background, parents, and neighborhood though the extent to which each of these factors are present varies. Hence, researchers cannot unanimously agree which of the above factors in addition to a variety of others like peer-influence are the most influential and deserve the most attention. Many past studies have claimed that neighborhood is of utmost importance when studying the school choice and children’s achievement rates, as well as their likelihood to attend college. However, the body of literature focusing on the neighborhood effect is not unanimous as well since some researchers tend to ascribe it a more prominent place than others with respect to education. One of such studies showed that children performed better in school once they moved out of disadvantaged neighborhoods, especially in terms of their cognitive skills assessments. There is also a supposition that neighborhoods that are disadvantaged and poor tend to have a profound impact on children’s achievement rates because of a psychological impact of their motivation or rather enhancement of low aspirations. Hence, “children living in deprived communities face a cultural barrier… of low aspirations and skepticism about education, the feeling that education is by and for other people, and likely to let one down”. This idea is spread in low-income families residing in disadvantaged neighborhoods as “in some families the culture is fatalistic – parents pass on the idea that their status is relatively fixed”. This way the neighborhood impact is tightly interconnected with the impact of low socioeconomic class prevalent in the neighborhood. On the contrary, there is no such problem with low aspirations in middle- and upper-class neighborhoods where children are exposed to an idea that everything is possible if one studies and works hard.
Some of more recent studies of the neighborhood effect acknowledge limitations of the traditional methodological approach that merely strives to answer a simple question of whether neighborhoods matter. In turn, such studies like the one by Harding et al. point out that the neighborhood effect is a sort of a multiplicative function of neighborhood characteristics, duration and timing of exposure to these characteristics, and susceptibility to them. Hence, if children live in a neighborhood, but go to school located outside the neighborhood and spend most of their time somewhere outside, then they are highly likely not to be significantly impacted by the neighborhood effect no matter whether it is disadvantaged or privileged. Therefore, the neighborhood effect is a highly unpredictable and individual variable in terms of the school choice, the impact of which can be somewhat assessed only in correlations with all other variables and factors. Further studies of this effect are required with the use of revised methodology and all-encompassing research questions that are clear and justified.
Race is usually considered to be an important if not the most important factor for school choice. It is supposed that racial and ethnic minorities are offered less school options and whose children tend to attend neighborhood-assigned urban public schools that are not selected by White students due to their supposed low quality. However, there is no solid evidence to link this choice only to race as economic and social backgrounds are two other essential variables of such studies and effects of each of the variables are impossible to separate from each other. Besides, there are studies that provide data proving that the racial impact on education has become recently less pronounced than socioeconomic class. Reardon points out that the achievement gap between children from poor families representing the 10th percentile of income and children from families that represent the wealthiest 90th percentile has grown by more than 40% and is today 50% bigger than the achievement gap between White and Black children. Thus, Reardon claims that “income has become a much stronger predictor of how well kids do in school. It’s more that income has gotten more important, not that race has gotten less important”. Parents themselves acknowledge this shift and, as one African American parent of two sons from New York whose family may be classified as lower middle class said, “I think race is starting to be a little less of a factor…It just matters less these days”. Income has also been proved to be among key factors of children’s likelihood to go to college. Hence, students from low-income families are 32% less likely to go to college than those from middle-income families.
Furthermore, recent studies show that “social class is the strongest predictor of educational attainment” in developed countries of the world, including the USA. According to modern statistics, three-quarters of middle- and upper-class school graduates go to college immediately after high school as compared with a half of poor young adults. Besides, the latter are more likely to choose two-year colleges than four-year ones. Moreover, socioeconomic status of the family is influential not only in term of the college choice, but also in terms of early school decisions. Children from low-income families tend to have fewer options as their parents have less information about these options and cannot afford private schools, thus sending them to a local public school.
The situation is drastically different for middle- and upper-class families where parents have a wide range of options and either send their children to private schools or look for a neighborhood known for its high-quality public schools. Besides, Holme has found out that middle-class parents are significantly influenced by a peculiar ideology developed and promoted among their peers with respect to which schools are good and bad. Middle-class parents have been shown to rely on comments of their colleagues and people belonging to the same class, as well as not being likely to check schools and their indicators on their own. Instead, they seem to trust opinions of others from the same social class and are more likely to move to other neighborhoods where public schools are reported to be good than representatives of lower social classes. This way, their school “choices are fundamentally a struggle for status and distinction, a means by which privileged parents seek out high-status institutions that will confer both material and social advantages on their children”. Withal, critical review of literature relating to factors influencing school choices allows concluding that race cannot be considered as the key factor nowadays as it has been overshadowed in terms of significance by socioeconomic class of families.
As mentioned above, research aim of the current study is to analyze what factors are the most important for school choice. The aim is studied based on the hypothesis that race is no longer a key factor, being instead substituted in terms of significance by social class and economic background. Thus, the best method for conducting the study seems to be the use of semi-structured open-ended interviews that last for about an hour each. Questions for the interview were prepared in advance, being modified and altered in the process with account for interviewees’ responses. Areas of questions concerned primary drivers and influences relating to education, as well as impact of the neighborhood and friends on educational aspirations. An approximate list of basic questions used for the interview is given in Appendix A hereto.
The sample chosen for the interview consists only of 5 participants, which constitutes the major limitation of the study. Participants of the sample have been chosen randomly and gave consent to recording of the interview sessions. As it turned out in the process of the interview, all interviewees identified themselves as representatives of the middle class with slight variations in income. On the one hand, this relative class homogeneity is beneficial as it allows making generalizations and justified conclusions about the most important factors impacting this group of the population. On the other hand, it constitutes another study limitation as it excludes from the analysis other socioeconomic classes. In any case, interview is the most suitable and effective way for carrying out similar studies as it allows changing questions based on the real-time feedback, clarifying responses, and finding out trends and patters that have not been anticipated at the initial stage of the study. Moreover, it is essential to note that with the use of this method and with account for a small size of the sample any findings of the study are only suggestive in nature and cannot be deemed conclusive in any way. Besides, the study has also envisaged critical analysis and synthesis of relevant and credible literature sources.
A summary of key findings to questions that were common in all five interviews is given below in Table 1. On the whole, patterns and trends obvious from the analysis of the interviews comply with findings of previous researches and tendencies indicated in the above synthesized and other literature sources. Hence, socioeconomic class seems to be the key factor in school choice for children coming from middle class with slight variations explained by differences in incomes and backgrounds of the interviewees during the school years. However, all interviewees mentioned that fact that going to college had always been a given in their lives and none of them had ever considered stopping the education process after high school graduation. Besides, this decision was motivated and supported by their parents who turned out to be the most influential driving forces that stimulated interviewees to pursue post-secondary education. However, there were noted some differences in terms of the impact of friends and neighborhoods, as well as of the family’s income on school choices.
As evident from Table 1, all but one interviewee are of the same age and all identify themselves as middle class with two belonging to lower middle class and one being in the upper middle class. Therefore, the sample is relatively homogenous in terms of age and social class. Race representation is versatile and none of the interviewees mentioned race as a really important factor in terms of school choice. In this respect, Erin, Allison, and I 5 made some race-related comments, but they cannot be deemed significant with account for their educational paths. Thus, Erin mentioned that she became exposed to some general racist comments and jokes for the first time in high school when she decided to transfer to a public school after studying in a private school. Although the high school was predominantly White, there were some ethnic minorities, yet these racist comments were not directed against them. Anyway, race did not concern the interview personally, which was not the case for Allison. Race did not significantly impact her school choices, but she mentioned that her neighborhood was a ghetto and there was a high criminal rate, which affected most of her school friends and peers. They tended to drop out or get into trouble, but race was merely an implicated in the interviewee’s response about the reason of such behavior, while the key cause related to low income of families in the neighborhood. In turn, I5 considered her race even a sort of an asset as she came from the family of immigrants and it was a huge motivator for her to become a high achiever and go to college. Besides, most of her friends were of the same race and all appeared to be high-achievers even though this behavior might also be attributed to their school curriculum demands and a pro-college orientation prevailing among middle-class families of the neighborhood. Withal, none of the interviewees cited race as an influential factor in the school choice.
In turn, socioeconomic class was mentioned as the most important factor for school choice by all interviewees either implicitly or explicitly. Erin mentioned that the ‘best thing that came out of my education growing is the fact that my parents put me in that private school. That set me on a real path for success’. She also claimed that it was possible only due to the fact that her parents could afford it. Besides, she never had to worry about choosing an affordable college and she based her choice of college only on her personal preferences for location and programs, while her parents got involved into the process only at the stage of signing the check. Moreover, she indicated that her entire neighborhood consisted of middle-class families where everyone took it for granted that students would go to college of their choice after graduating from high school.
Similar thoughts were expressed by Allison. In fact, her story complies with the trend noted by Holme as her parents moved to a neighborhood with a reportedly better school system just because they did not want their daughter to go to a bad high school attended by representatives of social classes that were lower than theirs. Allison mentioned feeling ‘privileged to have had that …not even a question at any point in my life, it was kind of a given’, implying hereby her decision to go to a four-year university. She also attributed a high graduation rate in her school to the socioeconomic background of her classmates all of whom belonged to the privileged upper middle class. Therefore, in Allison’s opinion, the socioeconomic class of a family was directly linked with educational path of an individual. The same conclusion was reached by I5 though from a slightly different perspective. I5 claimed that socioeconomic class has a direct impact on the quality of schools in the neighborhood. This is why her parents decided not leave an upper middle class and upper class neighborhood as they worried that moving to some other neighborhood may negatively influence I5’s education. Thus, they moved around the district even though it was really expensive for them. Besides, they moved to the USA when I5 was 13 just for the sake of her education as she wanted to go to an American university.
However, Tiffany’s story differed from those of other interviewees. The matter is that in the past her family belonged to the lower class, which impacted significantly her educational choices. She went to the local public school known for its ethnic diversity and a low graduation rate. Her family resided in bad neighborhoods, but once they had an opportunity, she started commuting to school and spent little time with peers from the neighborhood. Her college aspirations were motivated by her school teacher and she was the only interviewee who mentioned parents not as primary drivers of educational achievement, but rather as a motivating factor from the perspective that she wanted to have a better life that her mother and father. In turn, Tiffa did not differ from other interviewees in any essential way and her parents played a huge role in her school choices.
Table 1. Summary of Key Findings
Findings of the current study based on the method of interviewing randomly selected individuals from the target population are overall consistent with findings of previous researches and general trends evident from the analysis of the relevant literature. It happens so that in the contemporary world, at least in the USA, race has seized to be a dominant factor with respect to school choice. Of course, it remains influential in many cases, particularly in those concerning racial minorities, but it has lost its previously prominent position. In turn, socioeconomic class has acquired the status of the most important factor for school choice that predetermines schooling options available to the youth since their early years. Nowadays, children coming from middle-income and upper-income families tend to get more educational opportunities and show higher achievement rates than those coming from low-income families. Besides, educational paths of such children seem to differ from those of their less affluent peers.
There are several possible explanations for this situation. First of all, middle and upper classes obviously have more financial resources and can afford more school choices. Thus, they can pay for tuition in private schools, as well as having an option for moving to a neighborhood that is reported to have superb public schools to ensure that their offspring get a head start in life. Secondly, middle class families that have the primary object of the current study consider good education to be essential. Besides, they instill in a children an idea that going to college is a given and that children need college to have access to well-paid professional jobs. Thirdly, middle class families seem to care a lot about education and school choices of their children since early years. They take children to various extracurricular activities and encourage them to be high achievers, which is contrary to low inspirations and fatalism promoted in disadvantaged families. Of course, there are exceptions in both classes, but they seem to be quite rare. Finally, children from middle class families are highly motivated to be high achievers on their own even without direct influence of their parents. Their close friends come from families from a similar socioeconomic class and they motivate and support each other during the educational process. However, there are some slight deviations from these general patterns when families belong to lower middle class or have recently risen from lower classes. In such families, school teachers become primary drivers and offer inspiration to strive to go to college, while parents are viewed as a negative sample of what the lack of college education may lead to even though parents continue supporting children financially.
Study findings have thus proved a currently wide-spread idea that socioeconomic class has become of utmost importance when it comes to school choice. Besides, it plays a key role in terms of achievement rates and college attendance likelihood. Although findings of the present study are subject to serious limitations because of the small sample size, they offer a valuable insight into how the youth view their educational paths with account for their socioeconomic class. It contributes to the current discussion of the role of socioeconomic class for school choice, which is extremely topical if to take into consideration the fact this discussion is today raging all over the USA. However, most modern researches continue treating race as the most important factor for school choice even through empirical studies like the present one prove otherwise. Therefore, an evident implication of this study is that future researches should focus on socioeconomic class as the key factor for school choice and consider its interrelation with other influential variables such as neighborhood and parents’ educational background.
- What were some of the most important driving factors that led you to a four-year university?
- Who influenced you the most when it came to making a decision?
- Do/did these people live near you or were they outside influences?
- Why was this person such an influence on you when it came to making a decision to attend a four-year university?
- Tell me about your parents/guardians’ educational background starting from the elementary level through college.
- Tell me about your close friends over the years while you were in school. Where and how did you make these friendships?
- What was the educational background of your close friends, starting from elementary through college? Are they going/Did they go to college?
- Describe the neighborhood you grew up in (or the one you spent the most time in or had the greatest impact).
- What type of people lived there?
- Do you have any close relationships with people living in your neighborhood?
- Did you attend a public or private school, and why did you go to a private/public school?
- What about the graduation rate in your school?
- Did your educational path (including your Elementary/Middle/High school) affect your choice of going to a four-year education? If so, how do you think your elementary/middle/high school affected your ability to get into the college you’re attending or attended?
- What do your parents do?
- What economic class would you put yourself/your family in?
- With which race do you identify?
- How old are you?