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What is Opportunity? Part I

My friends like to joke that I have never met a simple question to which I couldn’t provide a complicated answer. This post will probably increase the number of people who share their opinion. But in my defense, opportunity is often thought of in overly-simplistic terms. We need a greater appreciation of the complexities of opportunity if we, as a society, are to ensure more equal access to it.

The notion of opportunity is closely connected with the very idea of America; the existence of possibilities to realize a better life for oneself and one’s children is the cornerstone of the American Dream. However, outright denial of such opportunities for people because of who they are or where they live has been a bedrock feature of the American reality since day one. This is not only a part of our history, but our current reality.

Given the central importance of opportunity to the idea of America, one would think that is straightforward, if not easy, to define and measure. This is not the case. Many people view opportunity as largely a matter of individual striving, grit, and determination—the consequence of personal responsibility and the choices that people make. For many others, opportunity is the responsibility of institutions systems that create, or deny chances, not just for individuals but for whole categories of people. However, the creation of opportunity is not reducible to the actions of individuals or institutions working in isolation.

There is a vast scholarly literature on opportunity. It is so large and specialized by discipline that merely summarizing the current state of knowledge and translating it into accessible terms is far too lengthy for a blog post. But you don’t have to wade into an ocean of academic literature to begin get a more nuanced appreciation of what the word opportunity refers to; one only need consult a dictionary.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, opportunity refers to “a time or set of circumstances that make it possible to do something.”1 Opportunity, then, is not a single, simple thing; it is constituted by dynamic, contingent connections between multiple things and circumstances. The existence of opportunity depends on the presence of enabling conditions, or sometimes just being in the right place at the right time with the right knowledge, skills, experience and imagination to take advantage of it. Opportunity dwells in the land of possibility and potential; it is anything but a certainty. Likewise, opportunities are not eternal, but ephemeral, they emerge and disappear as conditions change.

Through the research for my latest book, The Opportunity Makers: The First Half-Century of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity, I saw firsthand how higher education provides sets of circumstances for individuals to forge new possibilities for themselves and others. There is abundant evidence that shows that an individual’s ability to access and graduate from college is a major determinant of her lifetime earnings and her ability to enjoy a standard of living above the poverty line.2 In a knowledge-based economy, post-secondary education is going to be even more important. Of course, not everyone will go to college, but everyone should be able to do so if they wish. For most young people living in low-income communities, especially young people of color, attending and graduating from university is neither a chance nor a choice.

More than five decades after the dawn of the modern civil rights movement, the doors to higher education in the United States may be well marked, but they exist on different floors of a building where the elevators don’t usually stop and where the staircases have either whole flights missing or are blocked by debris. Programs like Sponsors for Educational Opportunity show that if connections can be built between those floors and young people can be put in front of those doors, they can walk through them and bust them open for others to follow.

This post is adapted from the introduction to Charles Rutheiser’s new book: The Opportunity Makers: The First Half-Century of Sponsors for Educational Opportunity. It is a revised version of a post that first appeared on

2 Michael Greenstone, et al. Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education; The Hamilton Project, 2013 and I. Sawhill, Higher Education and the Opportunity Gap; Washington DC: The Brookings Institution and The College Board, October 2013.

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