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“Education has become the main provider of individual opportunity in our society. Just as property and money once were the keys to success, education has now become the element that most ensures success in life.”
Which factor offers more opportunities for success in our society: education or money and property? In my view, education has replaced money and property as the main provider of such opportunities today. I base my view on two reasons. First, education—particularly higher education—used to be available only to the wealthy but now is accessible to almost anyone. Second, because of the civil-rights movement and resulting laws, businesses are now required to hire on the basis of merit rather than the kinds of personal connections traditionally common among the wealthy.
Education probably always played a key role in determining one’s opportunities for success. But in the past, good post-secondary education was available mainly to the privileged classes. Because money and property largely determined one’s access to higher education, money and property really were the critical factors in opening doors to success. However, higher education is more egalitarian today. Given our vast numbers of state universities and financial-aid programs, virtually anyone who meets entrance requirements for college can obtain an excellent college education and open up windows of opportunity in life.
Another reason those opportunities will be open to educated young people from middle-class and poorer backgrounds is that hiring is more meritocratic today than ever before. In principle, at least, we have always been a society where all people are equal; yet in the past, children of the wealthy and the well connected could expect to obtain higher-status jobs and to receive better pay. But the laws and programs resulting from our civil-rights struggles have produced a modern business climate in which jobs are available on an equal-opportunity basis, and in which candidates have a legal right to be judged on the merit of their educational background and experience.
In conclusion, education is probably the main factor in opening doors to success for young people in our society. The fact that education has supplanted money and property in this role is owing to a more egalitarian system of higher education, as well as to more merit-based hiring practices that generally value individual education over family fortune or connections.