The Relation between Education and Social Opportunity

Since the time of the Enlightenment, education has been viewed as carrying the potential to lessen inequality and expand the economic and social opportunities available to citizens. Much controversy surrounds the question of the degree to which that potential has been and is today being realized. 

The Spencer Foundation seeks to shed light on the role education plays in reducing economic and social inequalities -- as well as, sometimes, reinforcing them -- and to find ways to more fully realize education's potential to promote more equal opportunity. Expanded opportunity is important not only to a society's economic well being but to the character of its civic, cultural and social life as well. 

It is important to recognize that these educational investments don't occur in a vacuum. Larger social structures -- law and government, markets and property rights, practices and patterns of racial and gender inequality, and others -- provide a framework that conditions education's effects. Deep inequalities in family circumstances and social environments pose serious challenges to the attainment of equal educational opportunity. And even for persons with good educational opportunity, a variety of other factors in family and community life influence their prospects. While these observations should not be used to excuse schools from doing their utmost to improve the prospects of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, we need to understand better how larger social structures and the contexts in which schooling occurs (including family circumstances, health and nutrition, public safety, housing, transportation, libraries, and so on) influence the ability of schools to shape educational and social outcomes. 

Education enriches and expands people's lives in many ways, including through their employment opportunities, their civic and political involvements and the quality of their personal lives. Our interests therefore extend to studies that examine the ways in which differences in educational experiences (including quality and character of schooling as well as number of years in school) translate into differences in employment, earnings, and civic and social outcomes. Such work can help us identify ways to change schooling investments and outcomes in the interests of a more just and prosperous society.