Expert Commentary

Education and the reproduction of economic inequality in the U.S.

2010 study in Economics of Education Review on link between family background, education and achievement.


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,” 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

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