Report Draws Correlation Between Well-Being and Opportunity

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) Center for Research on Human Capital and Education released “Opportunity Across the States,” a new report that examines national and state-by-state data that spotlights inequities across the U.S. and how access or lack of access to resources impact people’s ability to accumulate social and human capital. The report notes that the unequal nature of opportunity has been strongly impacted by choices made over time by policy makers and key stakeholders around the country. The report argues that crafting greater equity requires consistent thoughtful action.

The report notes that individuals able to develop more human and social capital have greater opportunities for enrichment at all stages of their lives. Key factors in the accumulation of social and human capital are material and physical well-being. Children and adults in situations that do not foster development experience lower levels of well-being and face greater challenges. Data sources include the National Center for Educational Statistics, the U.S. Census and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.Dr. Irwin KirschDr. Irwin Kirsch

“This report is trying to describe the systemic issues that people face in their daily lives,” said Dr. Irwin Kirsch, co-lead author of the report and director of the Center for Global Assessment at ETS. “It’s acknowledging that your circumstances growing up and entering into adulthood have an impact on your ability to develop the human and social capital that you need.”

Human capital is quantified using data on adult skills, student skills and educational attainment. Social capital is defined as coming from social interactions that provide tangible benefits to individuals and communities. This report and the concept of well-being are measured by income/poverty, employment, health and safety at the state level. This is detailed in the report’s 50 State Data Briefs that compare each state to the national average.

“When you look at the opportunities that people have to develop the human and social capital, you can’t ignore their circumstances and environments in which they live and the opportunities that those environments provide them,” said Kirsch. “It’s going to take a real commitment to wanting to fix the problems that we face and then trying to understand the factors that are contributing to those problems to do something about it.”

Evan Mandery, professor in the department of criminal justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said these concepts are accurate. His book, Poison Ivy: How Elite Colleges Divide Us, addresses some of these issues and will be out in August.

“Deficits of opportunity intersect,” said Mandery. “Part of it is they work to disadvantage students of low socioeconomic status and there’s a multiplier effect for poor students of color. The even stronger effect is how much the positive multiplier effect is for affluent white students. These excesses of opportunity, disproportionate access to networks open pathways for them that just aren’t available for students who lack the same social capital.” 

Anita Sands, the co-lead author on the report, said addressing the challenges requires a complex and nuanced framework. To address only one thing will be ineffective. By utilizing this report’s information, she said that comprehensive policies could be crafted, and progress thoughtfully monitored.

“Blindly going forward without understanding the changes that we’re making may not yield the change that we want,” said Sands.

The analysis in the report lays out a link between levels of human and social capital and overall well-being across states. It shows an 85% variance in well-being across state populations. The authors noted that the report is not meant to be a competition among states, but the data shows that the state showing the lowest well-being was Mississippi and the highest was Minnesota.

According to the data, states with higher levels of well-being also have higher levels of human capital and the reverse is also true for states with lower levels of well-being. This can show state leaders where investments need to be made, said Sands, who added that cooperation and collaboration can lead to sustainable progress.

“There are gross disparities from one community to another in how much we spend per student, which translates into all types of opportunities—sports and extracurricular opportunities and opportunities to interact with people who you can form a professional network with and [they] become role models for how you live your life. These dramatically affect students’ lives,” said Mandery.Opportunity Across The States Cover[42889]

Kirsch said a common suggestion is that people stay in school longer and get greater levels of attainment, yet skills data shows there is a misalignment between levels of education and the number of people who acquire the skills needed to fully participate in today’s knowledge-based economy.

“Social capital provides you with connections and support that help you develop the human capital, but when you look at well-being, you have issues of poverty and income, employment status, health and community,” Kirsch said. “All of those factors work together to support the development of human and social capital.

“What this report does is lay bare that there are all these indicators and if we hope to make progress in addressing the inequalities and lack of opportunities then we need to be able to look at those indicators and see whether we’re improving one or whether we’re improving a whole set of them,” he added.

Kirsch said he hopes stakeholders, including decision makers at the Department of Education and the Department of Labor as well as associations like the National Governors Association, read the report. People who address, K–12, adult education and workforce development have a role to play and should be informed. They can drive policy and legislation to propel change.

“If we have any hope of increasing opportunity for many more people in this country, then we need to understand that we’re going to have to increase their levels of human and social capital,” said Kirsch. “Unless we find ways to increase opportunities and unless we do it in a much more fair and broad way, we’re in a real crisis that affects not just the economic well-being of the country, but also the social fabric of the country.”