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The education gap: Poor little rich kids feel the heat

If you doubt that we live in a winner-take-all economy and that education is the trump card, consider the vast amounts the affluent spend to teach their offspring. We see it anecdotally in the soaring fees for private schools, private lessons and private tutors, many of them targeted at the preschool set. And recent academic research has confirmed what many parents overhear at the school gates or read on mommy blogs.

This power spending on the children of the economic elite is usually, and rightly, cited as further evidence of the dangers of rising income inequality. Whatever your views about income inequality among the parents, inherited privilege is inimical to the promise of equal opportunity, which is central to the social compact in Western democracies.

But it may be that the children lower down the income distribution ladder aren't the only losers. Being groomed for the winner-take-all economy starting in nursery school turns out to exact a toll on the children at the top, too.

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Dismissing the value of a university education is one of the more popular contrarian ideas of the moment, and there are still a few diehards who play down the social significance of rising income inequality. But when you translate these abstract arguments into personal, practical choices, the intellectual disagreements melt away. We are all spending more to educate our kids, and the richest have stepped up their spending more than everyone else.

In "Investing in Children: Changes in Parental Spending on Children, 1972-2007," a study published this year in the journal Demography, researchers Sabino Kornrich and Frank Furstenberg found that spending on children grew over the past four decades and that it became more unequal between income groups. The two researchers warn that social mobility is in jeopardy.

"In the race to the top, higher-income children are at an ever greater advantage because their parents can and do spend more on child care, preschool, and the growing costs of postsecondary education," they write. "Thus, contemporary increases in inequality may lead to even greater increases in inequality in the future as advantage and disadvantage are passed across the generations through investment."

It turns out that children being primed for that race to the top from preschool onward aren't in such great shape, either. That is the conclusion of research by Suniya Luthar, a psychology professor at Columbia University's Teachers College, who found that children of privilege are an "at-risk" group. "What we are finding again and again, in upper-middle-class school districts, is the proportion who are struggling are significantly higher than in normative samples," she told. "Upper-middle-class kids are an at-risk group."

Her findings are directly connected to the stepped-up spending on children's education at the top that Dr. Kornrich and Dr. Furstenberg document. The title of the paper she is finishing now, due to be published in the autumn, is "I Can, Therefore I Must: Fragility in the Upper Middle Class," and it describes a world in which the opportunities for, and therefore the demands upon, upper-middle-class children are infinite.

"It is almost as if, if you have the opportunity, you must avail yourself of it. The pressure is enormous," she explained. It can be tempting, particularly if you don't happen to be raising children yourself in one of the hothouse communities Dr. Luthar studies, to dismiss this hyper-education education as a frivolous form of conspicuous consumption, such as cosmetic surgery or flashy cars. But the truth is that these parents and children are responding rationally to a hyper-competitive world economy.

"These are kids whose parents value upward mobility," Dr. Luthar said. "When we talk to youngsters now, when they set goals for themselves, they want to match up to at least what their parents have achieved, and that is harder to do."

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It turns out that our children are feeling the same paradoxical strains of the 21st century we all are.

Increasingly, we live in individualistic democracies whose credo is that anyone can be a winner if he or she tries. But we are also subject to increasingly fierce winner-take-all forces, which means the winners' circle is ever smaller, and the value of winning is ever higher.

Dr. Luthar says the children she studies worry that the price of losing would be psychic as well as economic: "What happens to me if I fall behind? I'll be worth nothing." In an age when more and more of the middle class is falling behind, no wonder they – and their parents – are at risk.

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