What Is Educational Equity, and Why Does It Matter?

Why equity is better than equality for the economy

student in science lab
Photo: Photo by kali9/Getty Images 

Equity in education is when every student receives the resources needed to acquire the basic work skills of reading, writing, and simple arithmetic. It measures educational success in society by its outcome, not the resources poured into it.

The ongoing public health and economic crisis have made achieving educational equity even more challenging. In many areas, schools were shut down. This worsened racial disparities, as many low-income families don't have the WiFi connections or computer equipment needed for long-distance learning. A McKinsey study showed that, as a result, students of color were an additional three to five months behind in math, while white students were one to three months behind.

Inequity in education slows economic growth as much as recessions. Students who don't receive the educational resources they need can't perform at their optimal level. They don't earn as much, can't build wealth, and therefore can't afford to send their children to good schools. This continues a cycle of structural inequality that hurts society as a whole.

Defining Educational Equity

Educational equity means the educational system gives each student what he or she needs to perform at an acceptable level.

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), equity in education has two dimensions that are closely intertwined.

1. Fairness

It means making sure that personal and social circumstances are not obstacles to achieving educational potential. It prohibits discrimination based on gender, ethnic origin, or socioeconomic status. 

2. Inclusion

It ensures a basic minimum standard of education for all. For example, everyone should be able to read, write, and do simple arithmetic. If some students need more to get there, they should receive it.


Equity should not be confused with educational equality, which means providing each student the equivalent resources.

Even if every school district gets the same level of funding, it might not be enough to help some students achieve the same level of proficiency. Equality is better than discrimination, but it may not be enough to provide equity.

The Impact of Inequity in Education

Equity in education is necessary for economic mobility. Without it, the economy will suffer from an achievement gap between groups in society. Because some students aren't prepared to achieve their working potential, it creates income inequality, which, in turn, forms a wealth gap.

Parents on the lower-wealth tiers can't afford to send their children to the expensive, quality schools that those on higher tiers can. This contributes to structural inequality, where the institutions themselves contribute to inequality. As a result, inequity in education means that a society loses the income and economic output potential of the lower-income tiers. That slows economic growth for everyone.

Achievement Gap

In the U.S., inequity in education has created an achievement gap between races. According to research firm Brookings, the average score of Black and Latinx students on standardized tests was significantly lower than that of White students.

In an earlier study, McKinsey found that the achievement gap caused by inequity in education has cost the U.S. economy more than all recessions since the 1970s. McKinsey also estimated that, if there had been no achievement gap in the years between 1998 and 2008, U.S. gross domestic product would have been $525 billion higher in 2008. Similarly, if low-income students had the same educational achievement as their wealthier peers over that same period, they would have added $670 billion in GDP.

Education and Income

Inequity in education has increased income inequality in America. Over a lifetime, workers with college degrees earn 84% more than those with only high-school diplomas. Meanwhile, those with master's degrees or higher earn 131% more than high-school graduates.

Despite this clear economic advantage, fewer than half of Americans age 25-34 have at least a university-level education. Ten other countries, including Korea, Russia, and Canada, rank higher. 

One reason is that higher education costs so much in the U.S. According to the College Board, one year of a public state school costs $10,560 for in-state students and $27,020 for those from out of state students. Private non-profit education, meanwhile, costs $37,650 a year. The OECD adds the U.S. spends $30,165 per student enrolled in tertiary educational institutions each year, the second-highest amount after Luxembourg. 

Education and Wealth

A 2018 St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED) study found there are three ways education creates wealth.

1. Families Headed by College Graduates Earn More

That gives the children a head start in life. They can attend better schools and receive better education themselves. 

2. The Upward-Mobility Effect

This occurs when a child is born into a family without a college degree. Once the child earns a diploma, the entire family becomes wealthier. FRED's study found this effect boosted family wealth by 20 percentage points. In families where both the parents and child graduated from college, wealth improved but only by 11 percentage points.

3. The Downward-Mobility Effect

Children whose parents didn't graduate from college fell 10 percentiles in wealth, while those with college-educated parents who didn't graduate from college themselves did worse, falling by 18 percentiles in wealth. 

Structural Inequality

Inequity in education has also led to structural inequality. Students in low-income neighborhoods may receive an inferior education compared with students in wealthier areas. Research from Michigan State University (MSU) has found that this school inequality gap accounts for 37% of the reason for their lower math scores. Structural inequality exists where poor children must attend public schools while rich children can afford to attend higher-quality private schools.

"Because of school differences in content exposure for low- and high-income students in this country, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer,” said William Schmidt, an MSU professor of statistics and education, in the study. "The belief that schools are the great equalizer, helping students overcome the inequalities of poverty, is a myth."

How to Achieve Equity in Education

The OECD recommends 10 steps to improve equity in education. Among these are:

Improving the Educational System's Design

The first four steps are laid out to improve the design of educational systems. School districts must make sure each school has the resources it needs for its students. This includes everything from special education to gifted students.

The school system routinely assigns children from an early age to either college-bound or vocational tracks. This often discriminates by gender, race, and income. Instead, the OECD recommends that tracking should be delayed or even eliminated.

Poor performers should be given extra training so they can "catch up." This includes GED programs. Vocational workers should also receive a college education so they can manage in more high-tech manufacturing.

Providing Personalized Education

The OECD's fifth through seventh steps targets the classroom level. Students should receive a personalized education based on their needs.

  • Instead of failing students, give them intense intervention in specific skill areas. This will increase graduation rates.
  • Work with parents more to get their support for their child's schoolwork. If this is impossible, then provide after-school programs for those children.
  • Help immigrants and minority children attend mainstream schools. If needed, give them intense language training. 

A University of Michigan study found an 11th solution that was both inexpensive and effective. Researchers sent invitations to high-performing, low-income high-school students. It promised scholarships to pay for all costs. More than two-thirds applied to the university, compared with 26% in a control group of students who also qualified for financial aid but did not receive targeted mailings.

Targeting Resources to Those Most in Need

The OECD's steps eight through ten suggest targeting scarce school funding to those most in need. The United States does the opposite. A U.S. Department of Education study found that 45% of high-poverty schools received less state and local funding than the average for other schools in their district. Similarly, the states that are wealthier have better education scores.

Step eight is to focus on early childhood education. The ninth recommendation says to give grants to children in low-income families to keep them in school. The federal government offers Pell Grants to low-income students attending college. Step 10 is to set school targets for student skill levels and school dropout rates, and to focus resources on those schools with the worst scores.

Key Takeaways

  • Equity in education is not the same as an equal education.
  • Equity is necessary for economic mobility.
  • The cost of inequity is more than all recessions combined.
  • The OECD recommends 10 steps to provide equity in education.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is an equity gap in education?

An equity gap can describe any inequality in education that falls along racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic lines. Equity gaps can also fall along lines related to college readiness and whether or not someone is the first in their family to attend college. The California State University system considers all of these variables as it seeks to define, find, and close equity gaps.

What is the difference between equity and equality in education?

"Equality" refers to the equal treatment of people, while "equity" recognizes the unique circumstances of each person and treats them according to their needs. In theory, equity and equality would share a definition in a perfectly equal society, but inequalities in the real world make it necessary to differentiate between the two.

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  1. McKinsey & Company. "COVID-10 and Learning Loss - Disparities Grow and Students Need Help."

  2. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). "Ten Step to Equity in Education."

  3. The Education Trust. "Equity and Equality Are Not Equal."

  4. Brookings. "Race gaps in SAT scores highlight inequality and hinder upward mobility."

  5. McKinsey & Company. "The Economic Cost of the US Education Gap."

  6. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "The College Payoff."

  7. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). "Education at a Glance 2019," Page 2.

  8. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). "Population with tertiary education."

  9. College Board. "Trends in College Pricing: Highlights."

  10. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "The Financial Returns from College Across Generations: Large But Unequal."

  11. Michigan State University. "Schools Worsen Inequality, Especially in Math Instruction."

  12. University of Michigan Ford School. "HAILed it—Tuition-Free Promise Attracts Low-Income Students to U-M."

  13. Department of Education. "Comparability of State and Local Expenditures Among Schools Within Districts: A Report From the Study of School-Level Expenditures," Pages 18-28.

  14. Education Next. "America's Mediocre Test Scores."

  15. Department of Education. "Federal Pell Grants Are Usually Awarded Only to Undergraduate Students."

  16. California State University. "Redefining Historically Underserved Students in the CSU," Page 10.

  17. The George Washington University. "Equity vs. Equality: What's the Difference?"

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