Like all societies, the United States is stratified, and this stratification is often based on a person’s socioeconomic status (SES). This complex formula takes into account three factors:
The number of years a person spends in school, plus the prestige of his or her occupation, plus the amount of money he or she makes, determine one’s social class. While this method of dividing up the population into classes might be useful, it has several shortcomings.
One determinant of socioeconomic status is education. People with a high school degree are classified in one group. People with college degrees are put into another. Using educational attainment levels to indicate SES is problematic for two reasons:
Free, compulsory education has existed in the United States since the beginning of the twentieth century, but some school systems are better than others. The American public education system tends to be highly decentralized, with decisions about what to include in the school curriculum being made at the state or local level. School systems differ widely in what they choose to teach and when.
Some school systems produce graduates who are prepared for higher education, while others turn out people whose basic math and language skills are so poor that they qualify for only a few types of jobs. The quality of the education a school provides depends largely on its budget, which in turn relies heavily on the tax base of the town or city in which it is located. Wealthy cities can afford better teachers, newer materials, and superior technology, whereas poor cities can barely afford basic supplies.
Poorer communities also tend to have a higher dropout rate than wealthier communities. Therefore, while establishing a profile of a typical high school graduate is difficult, the assumption remains, for the purposes of social classification, that all high school graduates are equally prepared for either the workplace or for higher education.