Choosing Our Future: A Story of Opportunity in America

What do we mean when we talk about opportunity in America? The idea of opportunity is embedded in our national DNA. Historically, America has been seen as the land of opportunity. The American Dream has always been predicated on opportunity.

Our story of opportunity in America begins with our children, and what opportunity looks like for them today. The simple yet disturbing fact is that across this country, children are beginning life from very different starting points.

Some are born to privilege, others are born to struggling families who face daily challenges to provide for them. These different starting points place children on distinctly different trajectories of growth, leading to the accelerated accumulation of advantage or disadvantage and, ultimately, to vastly different adult outcomes.

ETS’s newest policy report defines opportunity specifically as pathways to the development of human and social capital. There is clear evidence that gaps in human and social capital contribute to widening inequality in life outcomes. This inequality, in turn, contributes to disparities in opportunity for the next generation, setting up a cycle of accelerated advantage or disadvantage.

This report analyzes a set of powerful and converging forces that lead to inequality of opportunity. Ignoring these forces will lead to growing disparities among our citizens and place an unsustainable strain on the nation's social fabric and the character of its democracy. This report concludes by looking into the future and proposing a framework for action organized around five key principles that aim to broaden the reach and improve the effectiveness of new and existing efforts to clear pathways to opportunity.

View the interactive eReport or download the PDF version, and let’s join together to create a better future for America.

Watch the Opportunity in America Video


This volume is written by leaders from a range of fields including education, economics, demography, and political science. These authors illuminate many key factors that are converging to create a cycle of opportunity inequality in the United States and offer suggestions for how to reverse these harmful trends. Understanding the dynamics governing the distribution and transmission of opportunity – and transforming this understanding into policies and programs – is critical for not only the life outcomes of individual Americans and their children, but also the country as a whole. 

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Related Research

ETS has published dozens of policy reports related to growing inequality of opportunity in the United States, factors that contribute to this inequality, and issues that could undermine the fabric of our society. Highlights include:

America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future

M. Goodman, A. Sands & R. Coley, 2015

This report looks at how U.S. millennials score versus their international peers in literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments.

Poverty and Education: Finding the Way Forward

R. Coley & B. Baker, 2013

This report reviews the relationship between poverty and education and offers information on the measurement of policy and how the government attempts to address it.

Fault Lines in Our Democracy: Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States

R. Coley & A. Sum, 2012

This report examines challenges facing our nation and asserts that solutions need to come from those who are educated, skilled and civically engaged and who believe in our democratic system.

Parsing the Achievement Gap II

P.E. Barton and R. Coley, 2009

This report tracks 16 factors related to academic performance, ranging from low birth weight to teacher quality. While some gaps have narrowed, other have widened.

Windows on Achievement and Inequality

P.E. Barton and R. Coley, 2008

This report provides a panoramic view of educational achievement by examining a variety of data and measures beyond those that are typically reported.

The Family: America’s Smallest School

P.E. Barton & R. Coley 2007

This report outlines the family and home conditions affecting children’s cognitive development and school achievement and how gaps beginning early persist throughout life.

America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future

I. Kirsch, H. Braun, K. Yamamoto & A. Sum, 2007

This report looks at the convergence of three powerful forces that are changing the nation’s future: substantial disparities in skill levels, seismic economic changes and sweeping demographic shifts.

Visit ETS’s ReSEARCHER database to find more publications.