America’s Education Dilemma: Is Education a Solution to the Problem of Social Stratification?

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

The United States is a beautiful, diverse country. Diversity comes in cultural, racial, ethnic, and economic differences. This heterogeneous society does face challenges, one being in the educational system. Education can be argued to be the great equalizer between people of different backgrounds, but access to quality education is not attainable for every student, especially socially disadvantaged ones. Thus, we must ask, is education a solution to the problem of social stratification, or is it part of the problem? Seccombe and Kornblum (2018) discuss the three major sociological perspectives on education. Functionalism argues that compulsory education has a large impact on the socialization of students and their place in society. Education ensures less crime and poverty, but when students attend “disorganized” schools or come from “disorganized” backgrounds, they may not achieve those skills to the best degree. Conflict theory argues that education promotes social inequality of race, class, and gender through the use of standardized testing and hidden curriculum. For example, a test question encountered has been “an author is to a book as a composer is to a…” The answer is “symphony”, but students may be unaware of what a composer or symphony are based on their culture capital, which Pierre Bourdieu (1986) suggests is a main factor in reproducing social class. Symbolic interactionism refers to the development of students’ roles based on gender or supposed level of achievement. Students usually learn more if they are in the high achieving group while the students placed in lower groups learn less due to loss in self-esteem and their need to fulfill that role, sabotaging their success. (Chmielewski, Dumont, and Trautwein, 2013; Dumont et al., 2017; Stanley and Chambers 2018).

Consequently, the argument is made that education is so stratified that it leads to more stratification. This is due to unequal access to quality compulsory education. “[…]public schooling in the United States remains highly segregated. Sixty six percent of blacks and 73 percent of Latinos attend schools in which at least half the students are not white […] most studies have found lower achievement in predominantly minority schools” (Goldsmith 2004). Segregated neighborhoods based on race and class means that there is a difference in the quality of education students in those areas are receiving, as the school system in the more economically prosperous town receives more funding, more resources, and typically has higher quality teachers. Therefore, if students from lower socioeconomic levels are disadvantaged from the start, they are more likely to be trapped in their current social standing than achieve social mobility.

Competing arguments state that more students than ever are graduating from high school and pursuing a post-secondary education. Graduation rates have increased in race and ethnicity across the board, with Black students having 75 percent, Hispanic having 78 percent, American Indian/Alaska Native 72 percent, White 88 percent, and Asian/Pacific Islander 90 percent (National Center of Education for Statistics, 2017b). Although there may be inequality in K-12 education, it is argued that this is unavoidable in our capitalist system, and post-secondary institutions have done much to counteract this social effect. In recent years, American colleges and universities have adopted the strategy of looking at students with a “wholistic view”: not just looking at grades and test scores, but looking at students’ extracurricular participation, leadership roles, economic situation, and acknowledging how students’ educational abilities may have been hindered, such as taking care of younger siblings or working a job. More prestigious universities offer need based financial aid to ensure students do not have to pay excessive loans after attending their institution or are even prevented from attending their institution in the first place, and some such as the University of Chicago do not require standardized testing scores in order to address inequality. Additionally, there are scholarships offered by institutions and different levels of government for students of minority backgrounds or first-generation applicants to apply to post-secondary institutions.

Answering the initial question is challenging. Although the competing arguments are valid, they arguably do not address the original issue of how students develop in unequal school systems before reaching the possibility of applying to post-secondary institutions, such as teaching methods addressed by symbolic interactionists and social and cultural issues addressed by functionalists. Creating true equality in education would be quite difficult, if not impossible, with the current existence of public and private schools, the low supply of educators, and difference in opinions on curriculum. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 gives power over education to each individual state, making it impossible for homogeneity in American education. Policymakers should first address how unequal education affects the United States on a national and global scale. Such a study would then shift to reconsideration of certain existing policies, and possibly a better future for the American people.


Carina Crisan

Munster, IN

Munster High School Senior


Bourdieu, P. 1986, “The Forms of Capital.” In Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education, J. Richardson, ed. New York: Greenwood

Chmielewski, A.K., H. Dumont, and U.Trautwein et. al. 2013., “Tracking Effects Depend on Tracking Type: An International Comparison of Students’ Mathematics Self Confidence.” American Educational Research Journal, 50, 925-57.

Goldsmith, P., 2004. “Schools’ Racial Mix, Students’ Optimism, and the Black-White and Latino White Achievement Gaps”. Sociology of Education 2004, Vol. 77 (April): 121–147

National Center for Education Statistics. 2017b. “Public High School Graduation Rates.” April. (

Seccombe, K., Kornblum, W. 2018. Social Problems (16th ed). New York, NY. Pearson Education

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