School Economic Diversity
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Attending economically diverse schools with low concentrations of students experiencing poverty affects children’s long-term mobility prospects. Low-income children and children of color achieve better academic outcomes when they attend more economically and racially diverse schools. Although studies focused on concentrations of poverty in school do not tend to look at long-term outcomes such as employment, some connect poverty concentration levels to a student’s ability to score well on tests, earn high grades, graduate from high school, and succeed in college (Mickelson 2018; Henberger et al. 2019). These intermediate outcomes contribute to children’s economic well-being as adults (Henberger et al. 2019).

Evidence of the Relationship between Predictor and Related Outcomes

  • The 1966 report “Equality of Educational Opportunity,” better known as the Coleman report, laid the foundation for studies related to school demographics and outcomes (Coleman 1966). The Coleman report found that a student’s achievement is more highly related to the characteristics of other students in the school than any other school characteristics. Notably, the report and subsequent research found that the concentration of poverty in a school influenced student achievement more than the poverty status of an individual student or their family background, prior achievement, race, gender, and level of effort or motivation (Borman and Dowling 2010; Coleman 1966; Mickelson 2018). A meta-analysis of school socioeconomic composition research published between 1990 and 2000 covered over 101,000 students, 6,871 schools, and 178 independent districts and concluded that the association between family socioeconomic status and student academic achievement is stronger at the school level than at the student level (Sirin 2005).
  • Students who attend schools that have high concentrations of economically disadvantaged students are less likely to score well on tests, earn high grades, graduate from high school, and succeed in college than peers who attend socioeconomically diverse schools (Mickelson 2018). The negative relationship associated with attending a school with a high concentration of low-income students is stronger for students from low-income backgrounds than for those from higher-income backgrounds (Mickelson 2018).
  • One study looking at school-level economic characteristics found that the relationship between poverty and achievement was twice as large in medium- to high-poverty schools as in low- to medium-poverty schools (Orland 1990).
  • Schools with higher concentrations of poverty provide less optimal teaching and learning conditions and are, on average, much less effective than lower-poverty schools. (Mickelson 2018; Reardon 2016). Socioeconomically and racially segregated schools have less experienced and less qualified teachers, high levels of teacher turnover, less successful peer groups, and inadequate facilities and learning materials, all of which limit educational opportunities and outcomes (Orfield et al. 2014). For example, high-poverty schools have higher rates of first-year teachers than low-poverty schools (7.3 versus 3.1 percent) and shares of uncertified teachers (5.1 versus 1.9 percent). More-experienced teachers tend to work in lower-poverty schools (USDE 2014). At the high school level, lack of resources and teaching staff contribute to disparities in access to more advanced courses such as calculus, physics, or advanced placement courses (USGAO 2018).
  • Studies that explore the relationship between racial segregation and socioeconomic segregation find that they are closely linked (Rumberger and Palardy 2005). Large numbers of Black and Latino students typically attend schools with a substantial majority of children from households experiencing poverty, while white and Asian students are typically in schools with larger shares of children from middle-class families (Frankenberg 2009).
  • The association between racial segregation and racial achievement gaps is driven by the racial difference in the share of students’ schoolmates who come from families experiencing poverty. The racial difference in exposure to poverty in the average metropolitan area is roughly 20 points. In some metropolitan areas, Black and Hispanic students are 40 percent more likely to be exposed to schoolmates from families experiencing poverty than are white students. A 40 percent difference in exposure to poverty corresponds to a 0.3 standard deviation increase in the white-Black achievement gap and a 0.23 standard deviation increase in the white-Hispanic achievement gap relative to an area without a difference in poverty exposure. A 2016 study finds that the relationship between segregation and achievement gaps operates through differences in students’ exposure to schoolmates from families experiencing poverty. Racial differences in exposure to poverty account for roughly one-fifth of the average racial achievement gap (Reardon 2016).
  • A 2019 Maryland study on long-term high school and college outcomes found that school poverty levels were negatively associated with on-time high school graduation (Henberger et al. 2019). The study also predicted that a Black student with an above-average duration of poverty who attended an average-poverty school had an 85 percent likelihood of on-time graduation. In contrast, a similar Black student attending a high-poverty school had a 60 percent likelihood of on-time graduation. The predicted likelihood of college enrollment within one year of on-time high school graduation for Black students with durations of poverty one standard deviation above the mean who attended a school with the mean concentration of poverty was 69 percent; for similar Black students who attend a high-poverty school, that likelihood was 58 percent (Henberger et al. 2019).
  • The Century Foundation summarizes findings from research related to the economic and cognitive benefits of socioeconomically and racially integrated schools. Research shows that regardless of a student’s own economic status, students in socioeconomically and racially diverse schools have stronger academic outcomes than students in schools with concentrated poverty. For example, low-income fourth graders who attended more affluent schools scored the equivalent of roughly two years of learning above low-income students in high-poverty schools on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress for math. A separate study compared students with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and found that, controlling for family backgrounds, students in mixed-income schools showed 30 percent more growth in test scores over their four years in high school than students in high-poverty-concentration schools (Kahlenberg 2012). Research finds that if racial desegregation occurs without economic desegregation, the benefits of diversity can be lost (Khalenberg 2012).

How Investments Can Influence the Predictor at State or Local Levels

Strategies to increase the racial and economic diversity of students within and between schools should be adopted because there are documented benefits of socioeconomic diversity as an approach to school reforms (Kahlenberg 2012; Reardon 2016). Approaches to doing so could include funding charter schools, changing catchment areas, and incentivizing residential desegregation. For example, providing support to families experiencing poverty to relocate to areas of more opportunity and where students can attend better-resourced schools can be beneficial (Chetty, Hendren, and Katz 2016; Katz, Kling, and Liebman 2001).

To mitigate the impacts of concentrated poverty, jurisdictions should channel more resources to high-poverty schools. Opportunities include investing in resources for recreational facilities, summer and after-school programs, or tutoring. Although the Title I federal aid program allocates funding to local educational agencies and public schools with high shares of low-income families, researchers argue that funding needs to be expanded so that all eligible schools at all levels (elementary, middle school, and high school) receive resources (Henberger et al. 2019).


The primary reference is marked with an asterisk.

Borman, Geoffrey, and Maritza Dowling. 2010. “Schools and Inequality: A Multilevel Analysis of Coleman’s Equality of Educational Opportunity Data.” Teachers College Record 112 (5): 1201–46.

Chetty, Raj, Nathaniel Hendren, and Lawrence F. Katz. 2016. “The Effects of Exposure to Better Neighborhoods on Children: New Evidence from the Moving to Opportunity Experiment.” American Economic Review 106 (4): 855–902.

Coleman, James. 1966. “Equality of Educational Opportunity.” Report OE-38001. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics.

Frankenberg, Erica. 2009. “Splintering School Districts: Understanding the Link between Segregation and Fragmentation.” Law & Social Inquiry 34 (4): 869–909.

Henberger, Angela K., Bess Rose, Dawnsha R. Mushonga, Nam Boyoung, and Alison Preston. 2019. “Student and School Concentrated Poverty in Maryland: What Are the Long-Term High School, College, and Career Outcomes?” Baltimore: Maryland Longitudinal Data System Center.

Kahlenberg, R. (ed). 2012. “The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Educational Reform Strategy.” Washington, DC: The Century Foundation.

Katz, Lawrence F., Jeffrey R. Kling, and Jeffrey B. Liebman. 2001. “Moving to Opportunity in Boston: Early Results of a Randomized Mobility Experiment.” Quarterly Journal of Economics 116 (2): 607–54.

Mickelson, Roslyn Arlin. 2018. “Is There Systematic Meaningful Evidence of School Poverty Thresholds?” Washington, DC: National Coalition on School Diversity.

Orfield, Gary, Erica Frankenberg, Jongyeon Ee, and John Kuscera. 2014. “Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future.” Los Angeles: University of California, Los Angeles, Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles.

Orland, M. 1990. “Demographics of Disadvantage.” In Access to Knowledge: The Continuing Agenda for Our Nation's Schools, edited by J. Goodlad and P. Keating, 40–59. New York: The College Board.

*Reardon, Sean. 2016. “School Segregation and Racial Academic Achievement Gaps.” RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences 2 (5): 34–57.

Rumberger, Russell W., and Gregory J. Palardy. 2005. “Does Segregation Still Matter? The Impact of Student Composition on Academic Achievement in High School.” Teachers College Record 107 (9).

Sirin, Selcuk R. 2005. “Socioeconomic Status and Academic Achievement: A Meta-Analytic Review of Research.” Review of Educational Research 75 (3): 417–53.

USDE (US Department of Education). 2014. “Educator Equity Profile - Maryland.” Washington, DC: USDE.

USGAO (US Government Accountability Office). 2018. Report to the Ranking Member, Committee on Education and the Workforce, House of Representatives: Public High Schools with More Students in Poverty and Smaller Schools Provide Fewer Academic Offerings to Prepare for College. GAO-19-8. Washington, DC: US GAO.


Related outcome: Age-appropriate cognitive development and educational attainment

Mobility dimension engaged: Economic success; being valued in community

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