Education policy discussions in the United States tend to be dominated by people living in the Acela Corridor—the densely-populated, highly-educated, and high-income portion of the United States that is served by Amtrak’s fast train from Boston to Washington, DC. Since moving from the Midwest to New Jersey four years ago to start on the tenure track at Seton Hall, I have probably logged 50 trips to Washington via Amtrak’s slower (and less-expensive) Northeast Regional train. (It sure beats driving, and Amtrak’s quiet car is a delight!)
Many of the suburban communities in northern New Jersey have median household incomes of well over $100,000 per year, which is roughly the top 20% of American families. The top 20% is notable because that is the cutoff that the Brookings Institution’s Richard Reeves uses in his new book, Dream Hoarders, to highlight how upper-income individuals have taken steps to make sure their children have every opportunity possible—typically at the expense of other families. The sheer concentration of high-income families within much of the Acela Corridor has created a powerful set of social norms regarding education that can leave outsiders flabbergasted.
Yet in spite of having two parents with bachelor’s degrees, a PhD in education, and being one half of a two-income professional household, I find myself confused by a number of practices that are at least somewhat common in the Acela Corridor but not in other parts of the country. This was highlighted by a piece in Sunday’s New York Times on affirmative action. The reporter spoke with two students at private boarding schools in New Jersey, of which there are apparently a fair number. My first reaction, as a small-town Midwesterner, was a little different than what many of my peers would think.
Here are some other things that have surprised me in my interactions with higher-income families in the Acela Corridor:
- K-12 school choice debates. Unlike some people in the education world, I don’t have any general philosophical objections to charter schools. But in order for school choice to work (barring online options), there needs to be a certain population density. This is fine in urban and suburban areas, but not so great in rural areas where one high school may draw from an entire county. A number of Republican senators from rural states have raised concerns about school choice as a solution for this reason.
- SAT/ACT test preparation. I attended a small-town public high school with about 200 students in my graduating class. The focus there was to get students to take the ACT (the dominant test in America as a whole, with the coasts being the exception), while also encouraging students to take the PLAN and PSAT examinations. But I never saw a sign advertising ACT prep services, nor was I even aware that was I thing people do. (I took the practice ACT that came with the exam the night before the test—that was it.) In the Northeast, there seem to be more signs on the side of the road advertising test prep than any other product or service.
- The college admissions process. Going to a four-year college is the expectation for higher-income families in the Acela Corridor, and families treat the college choice process as being incredibly important. Using private college counselors to help manage the process, which often includes applying to ten or more colleges, is not uncommon. A high percentage of students also leave the state for college, which is quite expensive. (In New Jersey, about 37% of high school graduates head to other states to attend college.) Meanwhile, in much of the country, the goal is to get students to attend college at all rather than to get students to attend a slightly more prestigious institution. I can think of just one of my high school classmates who went out of state, and a large percentage of the class did not attend college immediately after high school.
- Private tutoring while in college. I supplemented my income in graduate school by tutoring students in economics, typically charging between $25 and $40 per hour to meet with one or two students to help them prepare for exams. (I paid for an engagement ring using tutoring income!) I was never aware of anyone paying for private tutoring when I was an undergraduate at Truman State University, but this was a common practice at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Nearly all of these students came from the suburbs of New York City or Washington, DC and were used to receiving private tutoring throughout their education. I got very few tutoring requests from in-state students, but they were typically paying for their own college (and thus got a substantial discount from my normal rates).
I worry about education policy discussions being dominated by the Acela Corridor regulars because their experiences are so different than what how most Americans experience both K-12 and higher education. If education committee staffers, academic researchers, and think tankers all share similar backgrounds, the resulting policy decisions may not reflect the needs of rural and urban lower-income individuals. It is important to seek out people from other walks of life to make sure policies are best for all Americans.