Education is historically considered to be the thing that levels the playing field, capable of lifting up the less advantaged and improving their chances for success. "Play by the rules, work hard, apply yourself and do well in school, and that will open doors for you," is how Karl Alexander, a Johns Hopkins University sociologist, puts it. But a study published in June suggests that the things that really make the difference — between prison and college, success and failure, sometimes even life and death — are money and family. Alexander is one of the authors of "The Long Shadow," which explored this scenario: Take two kids of the same age who grew up in the same city — maybe even the same neighborhood. What factors will make the difference for each? To find the answer, the Hopkins researchers undertook a massive study. They followed nearly 800 kids in Baltimore — from first grade until their late-20s. They found that a child's fate is in many ways fixed at birth — determined by family strength and the parents' financial status.