Born to Win, Schooled to Lose

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Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce


The American Dream promises that individual talent will be rewarded, regardless of where one comes from or who one’s parents are. Based on this ideal of equal opportunity, it’s tempting to believe that education and career outcomes reflect a natural sorting according to merit. But this presumption risks suggesting that those who do not thrive in school or the workforce lack talent— when, in fact, they more often lack sufficient systemic support on the journey to reach their full potential. In this study, the authors test the idea that achievement is a perfect reflection of innate ability by tracing children’s journeys through and beyond the educational system, from their academic performance in childhood to their early career outcomes as young adults. The authors find that there is substantial churn in children’s demonstrated abilities as they travel through the K–12 system and onward to college and careers. These findings suggest that talent is not fixed: innate ability can be nurtured over time, or it can remain underdeveloped. The education system can play a role in whether children reach their full potential.



academic achievement|\educational attainment, talented students