Skip to main content

Degree inequality

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | February 7, 2011

It is now generally understood that economic inequality has expanded greatly since about 1970. (Well, there are exceptions. For a couple of decades, some commentators denied that economic inequality was growing, claiming that it was all a statistical illusion. A few holdouts against reality may remain.) Now the debate has shifted to what – if anything at all – should be done about inequality.

graduate with mortar board reading "Thx Mom Dad"

UC Berkeley commencement ceremony

Most of that discussion has been about income inequality. Between 1979 and 2007, the one-fifth of American households with the highest income experienced a roughly 100% increase in their annual, inflation-adjusted, after-tax income (280% [!] for the highest one percent of households); the middle one-fifth got about 25% more income; and the poorest one-fifth got about 15% more (see pdf). For wealth – property, stocks, and the like – the gap is enormously greater and has also widened over the last few decades (see Ch. 6 here).

Less discussed is the widening college degree gap. Yet its implications go considerably beyond money, to widening differences in life experiences and ways of life. (I draw in particular on the work of my colleague, Michael Hout, notably here [pdf], and on two books we wrote together, here and here.)


Having a bachelor’s degree has always paid off – and having an additional degree or two has also paid handsomely. But this has become truer and truer. In Hout’s words, “The correlation between education and economic fortunes in the United States has never been higher.”

The chart below shows the trend in the “wage premium”: how much more workers with B.A.s make a week than workers with just a high school diploma make – after adjusting for earners’ races and work experiences. Except for a few years around 1970, the advantage grew, doubling between 1963 and 2008.


College Board: "Education Pays 2010"

This education-income connection cycles back: Having more money means more education for the children. Affluent parents can buy homes in the best school districts or pay for private schools; they can purchase enrichment programs after school; and in the summer they can pay for SAT tutoring. College students from well-off families can focus on their classes and graduate on time while less fortunate ones cut classes to work and then drop out if the money for tuition gets tight. Going beyond the B.A. is also easier for children of affluence. This connection between family background and college graduation has not slackened in recent decades even as its consequences have become more fateful.

In addition to making much more money, Americans increasingly benefit from college in other ways as well. Those with B.A.s are less likely to be unemployed. They are healthier; their children are more likely to be breast-fed and less likely to be obese.  Differences such as these have widened. For example, in 1950, college grads and high school grads smoked at about the same rate; in 2008, those who had finished college were about 1/3 as likely to smoke as Americans who had only finished high school (see here).

The college-educated have more stable family lives. They are likelier to eventually marry and, if they divorce, likelier to remarry than the less educated. And their children are, therefore, likelier to grow up with two parents in the home. This family advantage for college graduates has grown wider over recent decades. The chart below shows the percentage of children fortunate enough to live with two adults from 1940 through 2000. The different lines show the trends according to how much education the most educated adult in the home had attained. In 1940, the adult’s education made little difference in the chances that a child lived with fewer than two parental figures; in 2000, it made a huge difference. Children of the college graduates (the top line) largely avoided the single-parent crisis.


Source: Fischer & Hout, Century of Difference

Importantly, the connection between higher education and the good things in life is not, as some contend (famously Herrnstein and Murray in The Bell Curve), simply because smart people go further in school and smart people do well in life. Research shows that being in school longer – whatever is happening in and around the classroom – improves young people’s chances of doing well in most areas of life. Moreover, it is the marginal students, the ones who barely get into college, who benefit most from a college education.

Different worlds

Even is more happening along the education gap: Increasingly, college graduates marry college graduates and live among college graduates. Increasingly, Americans group by education and their ways of life diverge by education.

Although the trends are complex (see here), Americans today are likelier to marry people of the same educational level as themselves than was true decades ago. Some of this development results from educated men increasingly marrying educated women; for example, the lawyer who married his secretary is now a lawyer who marries another lawyer. And some of this change is due to poorly-educated men becoming ineligible as spouses; drop-outs can no longer support families on brawn alone.

Then there is residential separation: A study by Thurston Domina  (pdf) shows that college graduates are concentrating in some metropolitan areas (San Francisco and Raleigh-Durham, for example) and seem to be avoiding others (Indianapolis and Las Vegas, for example) and also that neighborhood segregation by college education grew substantially between 1970 and 2000. It grew faster than segregation by income, even as segregation by race declined. Another study documents how the highly-educated are concentrating in the downtowns of the most booming cities.  And a recent story reported that these degree-holders are starting to raise their children in center cities — even in Manhattan. Thus, enclaves of the highly-educated are growing in chic, gentrified, non-smoking neighborhoods, while the less educated move to the scraggly, sprawling suburbs of stagnating cities.

What is less clear, although certainly plausible, is that this widening separation carries along with its economic and social divisions, a widening gap in values and ways of life: two different Americas, divided educational attainment.


The postwar college-graduation boom – in 1950 about 8 percent of American 25-to-34-year-olds had 4 years or more of college; in 1980, 24% did – was largely propelled by public investments in higher education. Campuses such as UCLA, Ohio State, and UT-Austin grew enormously in the 1950s and 1960s and satisfied the growing demand. The United States had more college graduates than anyone. But the rising tide, the swell of public support, that brought so many Americans to colleges has abated. Now, as President Obama noted in his State of the Union, “America has fallen to ninth in the proportion of young people with a college degree.” He went on to propose a goal: “By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.” (Good luck!)

Further expanding the proportion of our college-educated would do much – for the college-educated, for the national economy, and perhaps to shrink the education-wealth-culture gap. In financial terms alone, a $1 public investment in higher education eventually yields about $3 to the state (see here). But that is over the long run. Where the funds to invest would come from right now is another matter. We are not in the economic climate of the ‘50s and ‘60s, nor in its political climate. Public higher education is shrinking. The education gap may well keep widening for quite a while.

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.

Comments to “Degree inequality

  1. This matters a lot for policy purposes, because focusing on marginal students, if they don’t real benefit as much as suggested, takes away from support for academically well prepared students who fail to go to college simply out of financial need, whom we know succeed in college and are large in number.

  2. “Having a bachelor’s degree has always paid off – and having an additional degree or two has also paid handsomely.”

    You mean you make more money? Which pays off how? You are happier? You pollute the earth less? You are more free? You live longer?

    None of this is true. How does it “pay off”?


    Broke and Content

  3. Its ironic to post this on the UC Berkeley blog, since the undergraduate guidance there is notoriously thin. It takes longer for undergraduates to get their degree at UC Berkeley. Many graduate students never get their degree, though they still have to pay back all their loans.

    One major problem is there is no one defending student’s rights at the individual level. Ombudspersons working within the institutional framework are next to useless. But there is no incentive at all for people outside the university to take a special interest in addressing violations of student rights.

    A decade ago a UC Berkeley professor brought my graduate career to an end by simply swapping my fellowship nomination with the name of a student he liked better. By the time I found out, it was too late to find another source of funding. My complaint was kicked between the Graduate Division on my Department for months, and in the end the only redress I got was notification that professor would not touch anything I was involved in ever again. By that time I was too demoralized to work any further on my degree. It was hard to imagine the professors who had robbed me of a year’s income so shamelessly and who dismissed my complaint about it would help me launch an academic career.

    The reason I’m telling this story is to point out there are many subtle reasons for degree inequality that have nothing to do with academic performance or under privileged background. The professors are gatekeepers of who gets a degree and how fast. Their decisions should be based purely on academic merit, but often it’s not. Professors are calculating their position, building their dynasties, and molding their own careers. Students easily become casualties of the professor’s pursuits. University education should be for and about the students, but in the US it’s not. And it won’t be for and about the students until there are people outside the university system who start to keep watch and jump in when student rights are being trampled.

    • Thanks for speaking out anon, we need many more to be allowed to speak out as you have.

      Too bad far too many professors fail to do what is necessary for the survival of Humanity. I am proud to have graduated during a time when students were able to make some civil rights happen because freedom of speech triumphed, but our civil rights, including freedom of speech are under attack once again, proving that we must never give up fighting for what is right even in America.

      Up until now their Ivory Tower Academy has been unassailable by We The People, but the current failures by our politicians to protect American Democracy can bring about changes in all institutions if We speak out demand changes in favor of We The People once again.

      Unfortunately the History of Civilization is a history of failures with no enduring success yet, and considering our current state of impending calamity there is no reason to think we have evolved enough to overcome our design flaws yet.

  4. What good is it to teach and learn if we can’t make the world a better place for the future of the human race and everything else on earth?

  5. I thought this article might be about degree major inequality, such as Computer Science majors starting salaries averaging $60K and Psychology majors earning $32K, nearly a 100% “inequality” (despite often paying the same amount for college).

    • You just explained why every single one of our institutions has failed to protect the long term survival of the human race.

      The never-ending economic, social, political and environmental disasters we see, hear and read about everyday keep proving that vast majority of political and intellectual leaders of all institutions only care about short term personal wealth and power, and those who dare to care are of little or no value to those who determine our future.

  6. You say “It is now generally understood that economic inequality has expanded greatly since about 1970.” This is only true if you have a narrow Eurocentric mindset. The global poverty rate has fallen to about 20% from over 50% in the last 30 years. The number of people living in extreme poverty has fallen by over a billion.

    Giving an education to people in developing countries will be far better for the world than giving it to people in developed countries. Excessive emphasis on the outcomes of a group of people in rich countries will only increase global income inequality.

  7. “Moreover, it is the marginal students, the ones who barely get into college, who benefit most from a college education.”

    I’m deeply skeptical of this claim. Graduation rates for marginal students are very low compared to the average college students (typically well under 20%), direct measures of student learning so that they are most likely to be among the one-third learn very little even if they do graduate, SATs are even more strongly linke to upper division performance than lower division performance in grades, and students at selective colleges have great economic edges over students at less selective colleges. All of these points suggest that marginal students benefit least, on average. The fact that associate’s degree earners do only marginally better than college dropouts is also suggestive that the value added from the education itself, as opposed to sorting effects, is what is at work. Those who just barely get in and then drop out moreover, are left with debt but not with a degree or profession. There is every reason to suspect that college dropouts (who on average drop out before the end of their sophomore year) outperform those who simply graduated from high school and didn’t even try to go to college, simply through sorting effects.

    Also, it is notable that the proportion of marginal college students come from affluent families is much greater than the proportion well prepared college students come from affluent families. So, benefits may be a wealth effect in addition to a sorting effect, rather than reflecting the actual benefits of the education.

    This matters a lot for policy purposes, because focusing on marginal students, if they don’t real benefit as much as suggested, takes away from support for academically well prepared students who fail to go to college simply out of financial need, whom we know succeed in college and are large in number.

  8. I don’t doubt for a minute the many current advantages accruing to those with college degrees. But it will be interesting, in the future, to factor in the increasing amount of educational debt assumed by college B.A.s and Ph.D.s, in order to gauge the costs and benefits of education. It’s been widely reported that the rapid expansion of higher education in China has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the income disparity between college graduates and migrant workers.

  9. Is there any evidence that the supply of college education is lagging behind demand? 75% of US colleges and universities accept virtually every student who applies. When 8% of Americans were finishing college, it’s pretty clear that there was a whole lot of unmet demand. When one quarter are finishing college, that is far less clear. In particular, one has to wonder if too many individuals are enrolling in college these days given extraordinarily low college completion rates and a proliferation of remedial instruction.

    You mention that every public dollar invested in higher education yields $3 in return. I’ll play ball and accept that this is an accurate estimate. This also means that the private return to a college education has to be at least as great. Case in point — A UC education will cost perhaps $50,000 in fees over four years — the benefits of the degree are, in all likelihood, far greater than $150,000. For Cal State universities, fees are even lower.

    Given the rising college wage premium, it is perplexing that more high school students are not finishing college. But this has very little (if not nothing at all) to do with decreases in funding for higher education and everything to do with what goes on in the eighteen years prior to college enrollment. If we are concerned with the college attendance gap, then we would be well served to concentrate greater resources in elementary and secondary education — not higher education.

  10. Prof. Fischer, you are most correct to ask “what — should be done about inequality” because our problems far exceed “Degree inequality” in California today.

    The fact is that even with the huge number of college graduates we have today, California has lost so many competitive advantages and is experiencing so many unacceptable threats to our whole way of life that we need to reinvent our entire education system to deal with the destructive changes that have occurred over the last half century, including:

    Failures by our political and intellectual leaders are causing totally unacceptable consequences that threaten social, economic, political and environmental stability in America and worse, future quality of life on our planet.

    Reasons for youth unemployment that are driving unrest in the Middle East also threaten America.

    Domination of the nation’s scholars by the power of money is having grave, unacceptable consequences today.

    We have already approached or exceeded far to many global warming tipping points including food and health failures due to failed crops, declining clean water supplies, environmental pollution, extreme hot and cold weather changes, rising oceans, floods, storms, drought, wildfires, deforestation, accelerated glacial and snowpack melting, biodiversity losses, etc. at our increasing peril.

    Politics and the power of money have been overthrowing the Rule of Law, threatening American Democracy.

    And Freedom of Speech on college campuses, for students and professors, is under attack because of politics and destructive cultural values that have been allowed to dominate our society for far too long.

  11. Can a James B. Conant emerge for the 21st century? He or she would have an even tougher time than the original, I imagine.

Comments are closed.