Education and the Reproduction of Economic Inequality in the U.S.
Education has long been considered “the great equalizer ” in the United States, a way for an ambitious and talented individual to secure a good job (as characterized by good wages, benefits, and job security) regardless of the socioeconomic status of his or her parents. But the extent to which belief this holds true has been tested — and contested — by social science research for decades.
A 2010 paper by UC-Santa Barbara published in the Economics of Education Review, “Education and the Reproduction of Economic Inequality in the United States: An Empirical Investigation” (PDF), investigates the extent to which family circumstances, race, gender, and individual abilities are implicated in college graduate rates and adult earnings levels. The research analyzes data collected from 8,901 eighth-grade students, their parents, teachers and school administrators in 1988 and in 2000, at which point the students had entered the labor market.
The report findings include:
- There is a moderate correlation (0.253) between parental socioeconomic status (SES) and adult earnings. When levels of educational attainments are factored in, the correlation drops 50% to 0.129, suggesting that approximately “half of the total effect of parental SES can be explained by its effect on educational attainment.”
- “60% of upper-class students completed college, compared to only 7% of lower class students — a ratio of more than 8 to 1.” Even after controlling for lower testing scores and expectations of attending college, “the odds of completing college for a middle-class student were two times larger than for a lower-class student.”
- “60% of the effect of parental [socioeconomic status] on adult earnings is [explained by] education, cognitive skills, and noncognitive abilities. This suggests that parental SES still exerts a strong, direct influence on adult earnings.” This finding is likely impacted by other variables such as a family’s social capital (i.e. business contacts) or wealth transfer through inheritances.
- Educational achievement is the most important variable predicting levels of professional success for women and Hispanic males. Parental socioeconomic status, however, is the most important predictor for white males, and test scores are the most important predictor for Asian males.
The author concludes that social class may trump education in terms of predicting individual achievement, but that there are statistically significant differences relating to gender, race, and cognitive abilities that influence outcomes.
Tags: employment, poverty, inequality, higher education
Note to instructor: The suggested assignments are designed for flexibility. They can be used in whole or part and can be adapted to a particular task -- for example, the newswriting assignments could be applied to the writing of the headline, the lead, the nut graph or the full story. Material from the assignments could also be combined with other material, for example, in the writing of a background, feature or local-angle story.
Read the Economics of Education Review study “Education and the Reproduction of Economic Inequality in the United States: An Empirical Investigation” (PDF).
- Summarize the study in fewer than 40 words.
- Express the study's key term(s) in language a lay audience can understand.
- Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example: Do the results conflict with those of other reliable studies? Are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
Read the issue-related New York Times article "City Seeking New Test for Gifted Admissions."
- Using the article and the study as a jumping-off point, discuss the ideas, data points and frames of reference relating to competitiveness in education might be useful to pull into a story examining education at the state or local level? How can comparisons be problematic?
- Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study.
- Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
- Interview two sources with a stake in or knowledge of the issue. Be prepared to provide them with a short summary of the study in order to get their response to it. Write a 400-word article about the study incorporating material from the interviews.
- Spend additional time exploring the issue and then write a 1,200-word background article, focusing on major aspects of the issue.