Invisible Walls

Matthew Palatnik, Poolesville High School

Matthew Palatnik tackles the issue of the opportunity gap and his experiences with it, from the base of his privileged background. (Published: 2019)

In America today, there is a lot of talk about walls. Earlier this year, the U.S. government partially shutdown as the president tried to force Congress to fund a massive wall on our southern border. To justify this extreme step, he has vilified asylum seekers as criminals, despite the fact that they are mostly families fleeing violence or persecution. Walls, either between countries or surround ing gated communities, are physical delineations of borders. But our society is also full of borders that are not physical. Instead, these walls can’t be seen or touched. Coming from an upper middle class home, I have become aware that these walls are invisible to me, but are very real barriers to the poor and boundaries that are difficult, or impossible, to cross.

I attend a highly regarded and selective magnet program at my high school. To get into this program, I had to take a very challenging admissions test. In preparation, I went to a specialized prep course, which undoubtedly helped me get into the program. At around the same time I met a new friend — I will call him James — from a different socioeconomic background from me, although we live in the same town. James wanted to study science in the magnet program. James is talented, ambitious and works hard, but unlike me, his parents couldn’t pay for the specialized prep course. Despite this, he wanted “to give it a try,” he said. James did not get into the elite program. We live one mile apart, but an invisible barrier separates our educational experience.

This disadvantage will follow James as he prepares for college. SAT prep is a common practice for middle class students, and for most, it does improve scores. James’ parents can’t pay for SAT prep, or any other enrichment programs, such as music lessons or specialized camps — all of which provide real advantages for college admission. Even the cost of college applications may be prohibitive for James. I have discovered this sort of economic bias is pervasive at every level of education.

Education is thought of as an equalizer in society drawing students by merit rather than wealth, but education is increasingly biased towards the rich in the United States. According to one study published in 2017, 67% of Harvard’s student population comes from the top 20% of earners, grossly overrepresented them, while only 4.5% came from the bottom 20% of earners. Stanford is even worse, with the bottom 20% of earners representing only 3% of the university population. Access to top universities for lower income students has not changed in 40 years, as the poor get poorer and the rich have gotten richer.

The cost of college has skyrocketed, and rich families can afford to pay the high tuition, so their children can embark on their adult life unburdened by loans.

Students from lower socioeconomic levels must take large loans to finance their education, leaving them with enormous debt which often cripples them financially for years, as they try to advance and achieve a decent life. Many of those who live in poverty are demonized as somehow “other,” or unAmerican, when in fact they are the ones pursuing the American dream, which has become more of a dream than ever.

According to the Economic Policy Institute, “While faith in the American Dream is deep, evidence suggests that the United States lacks policies to ensure the opportunities that the dream envisions.” In fact, there are considerably more “class barriers” in the United States, and much less social mobility than in other developed nations such as Denmark and Norway. Americans routinely overestimate upward mobility in our country, because of the embedded belief in the American Dream, which is becoming more of a myth than a reality.

As a young person, I am deeply saddened by the increasing acceptance of the situation.

I look at James and I feel angry, and also guilty — why should I have advantages he doesn’t, do I really deserve better opportunities? In reality, it’s just luck, and I want to believe in society, especially in America, doesn’t work that way. But of course, it does. I have tried to make an impact in my own school through anti bias programs, but the social and economic walls sometimes seem too high to scale.

It is easy to pretend this problem doesn’t exist, but this is a huge mistake. The first step to addressing this issue is acknowledging its truth. How can one reach their potential when so many walls and barriers block their path?

This means educating the public and working hard against “alternative facts” and flat out lies. The second step is to work on behalf of greater equity in society by supporting greater access to education, whether through academic support for low income students, or reduced college tuition in general.

I realize how lucky I am, and I am grateful for that. But I also want to live in a country where kids like James don’t need luck to get a great education and achieve their dreams.

We need to break down these invisible walls and live up to the promise of the American Dream, which means equal opportunities for everyone, including in education.