No matter what your political stripes, if you are an American you believe in equal opportunity. That is a bedrock value of our nation. Columnist David Brooks  wrote in Thursday's New York Times that equal opportunity does not now exist at the college level, and he is right. He points out many of the barriers lower-income students face in applying to and staying in college.
I disagree with Brooks' assertion that scholarship money is available to all students who need it and want to attend college. The truth is that financial aid has not kept pace with the rising costs of tuition, as documented by Tom Kane's chapter "College-Going and Inequality," in Social Inequality (Russell Sage Foundation , New York 2004) And Brooks' focus on students only after they get to college misses the fundamental inequalities of opportunity that permeate the lives of less-well-off children in America.
Education today is the gateway to a good job. The estimated payoff for a college degree in terms of lifetime earnings increased by more than $75,000 over the past two decades. Yet as Brooks points out, it is chiefly the rich who have reaped the rewards that higher education provides.
Why? Because we have stacked the deck against less advantaged children. Their parents can't afford the quality child care or pre-kindergarten education that give affluent children a head start. And the Head Start program is woefully under-funded. Poorer children live in neighborhoods whose schools receive less funding than wealthier neighborhoods and their parents can't provide many resources to their public schools. Poorer kids are in poorer health, which makes learning hard, because many lower-wage families cannot afford health care coverage. And they suffer from a plague of low expectations from a society that has written them - and their parents - out of the American Dream.
It is no wonder that enrollment at four-year colleges increased by 20 percent for the richest segment of Americans in the last two decades, while it actually declined among lower-income children. As David Brooks put it, "…each generation of Americans seems to be challenged in its own way to provide its children with an open field and a fair chance."
It is time our generation provided that chance. Instead of giving tax cuts to the rich and write-offs to corporations, we could ensure that all children are provided quality child care and preschool education, that public schools in all neighborhoods receive equal resources, that every child has health care, and that children are assured that if they work hard in school they will be able to go to college regardless of their parents' income. It would at least be a start to fulfilling the promise of equal opportunity.