I know a man from Texas who grew up poor, living in a trailer park. No one in his family had ever been to college. Then, in high school, he met a girl (whom he would eventually marry) from a more educated family; she helped open his eyes to greater possibilities. He started studying hard for standardized tests and discovered that he was actually really good at them. Now, he’s about to graduate from a prestigious law school.
That man is my brother-in-law.
This tale illustrates something larger: The U.S. is filled with talented people, too many of whom are hidden, overlooked, left behind and waiting to be discovered. For example, take Hadiyah-Nicole Green. She grew up as a poor orphan in St. Louis, and like my brother-in-law, no one in her family had ever been to college. But after attending a summer program at Xavier University and going to college at Alabama A&M University, she became a physicist doing research in the medical industry. She went on to develop a pioneering treatment for cancer using lasers and nanoparticles.
Or consider Tom Mueller, the son of an Idaho lumberjack who was interested in rockets. After chopping down trees to pay his way through the University of Idaho, he became a mechanical engineer designing satellites and rocket engines, and today is a founding employee of SpaceX, the world’s leading space exploration company. These are just anecdotes, but the data tell a similar story.
In 2005, Florida’s Broward County began administering a test to all second-graders to identify gifted and talented students. The number of black and Hispanic students in those classes promptly tripled, and those minority students performed very well in the gifted programs.
When the testing regimen was ended in 2010 due to budget cuts, the racial disparities re-emerged. Broward’s episode suggests that American institutions are bad at identifying talent, especially among minority students.
Broward’s experience is far from unique. Looking at 11 states that, since 2001, started requiring (and paying for) high school students to take the ACT or SAT tests, economist Joshua Hyman found that large numbers of poor students scored as college-ready who otherwise would not even have taken the tests.
This hidden talent increased the pool of college-ready poor students by 50 percent. Other papers found that mandatory testing increased college enrollment rates among disadvantaged students.
But testing alone won’t solve the problem of finding neglected American talent. Data from a 2005 report by the National Center for Education Statistics reveals that low-scoring students from high-income families are more likely to complete college than high-scoring students from low-income families:
Other research shows that more than half of talented students from low-income backgrounds don’t apply to any competitive colleges. It’s clear that even identifying gifted students from low-income backgrounds isn’t enough to get them into the ranks of the educated elite. Family wealth still stacks the deck.
The U.S.’s failure to identify and nurture talented poor and minority students is hurting the country’s productivity, but it’s also deeply unfair. The U.S. scores relatively low compared to European countries in measures of relative mobility — the chance that someone who grows up in the lower-income percentiles will make it into the top group.
More must be done to identify and nurture talented poor and minority children. Universal testing is a first step. Research has also identified inexpensive interventions that help nudge low-income students to aim higher after high school; all these should be universal. Much more financial aid — in the form of grants, not loans — should be made available to low-income students, and college practices like legacy admissions that favor the rich should be banned or discouraged.
Another helpful intervention is mentoring — gifted and talented classes, summer programs like the one attended by Hadiyah-Nicole Green, and finding successful mentors from the community to work one-on-one with talented low-income and minority students.
It’s likely that all of these initiatives won’t be enough to identify all of the U.S.’s neglected talent. But they’ll be a start. Stopping the waste of poor and minority students’ gifts would be an important step toward restoring the U.S.’s reputation as a land of opportunity.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.