If You Want Social Mobility, Choose Your Parents Well!

A few years ago, I was researching the value of bachelor’s degrees and discovered a research study for the Department of Education called Baccalaureate and Beyond (Cataldi, Siegel, Shepherd and Cooney 2014).

It is a longitudinal survey – one that follows a group of individuals over a long period. In this case, researchers looked at subjects four years after earning a bachelor’s degree. The thing I found interesting was that about 30% of the subjects did not have a single full time job.

This caught my attention because the education industry insists that the more education one has the better job prospects become and the more money made. That promise implies that college graduates would have “good” jobs – traditional 40 hour per week positions with some degree of job security.

This study certainly did not support that claim.

Of the thirty percent who did not have a single full time job, about half, or 15%, were working one or more part time jobs and the other half were unemployed. The other half had dropped out of the labor force, either returning to school or becoming a housewife/husband.

I found this so stunning that I called up the lead investigator of the study and asked him, rather bluntly, “If a bachelor degree is not a good predictor of socioeconomic success, what is?”

He didn’t skip a beat.

“Zip Code”

The best indicator of future social status is the social status you happened to have been born into, even more than education. socio-economic status is inherited, it seems.

In his still very relevant and interesting 2003 book, Somebodies and Nobodies, physicist and college president, Robert Fuller argues that social hierarchies are natural and needed but takes special aim at the unfairness inherent in them.

In one passage he shares the divergent life courses taken by him and his childhood friend, Gerald, whose family owned a chicken farm. Both boys were interested in math and they enjoyed a friendly competition for twelve years that sharpened their math skills.

“At a high school reunion a few years ago, I asked Gerald whether he regretted not developing his talent for math…With an unmistakable wistfulness, he explained that it had always been assumed he’d work the farm. None of his teachers took his mathematical talent seriously. No one ever encouraged him to aim higher. He never even considered anything beyond high school. I’m sure he could have become a college math professor…” (Fuller 2003, p. 36).

Both men started at the same place with the same interests and talents, one becomes a physicist and college president, while the other spends his life driving an egg truck. The only difference between the two was the social status of their families.

If your parents were wealthy and went to elite universities you will likely follow that path. On the other hand, if your parents went to land grant colleges and end up in the working class that is probably your fate as well.

That just rubs me the wrong way. So I started researching academic studies in order to bring some sense and clarity to the issue of the value of education.

Here is Alison Wolf, (2009), a leading UK professor writing in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning:

“In Britain, returns to degrees have already dipped badly for specific groups, especially those majoring in the liberal arts or attending low-status schools… You earn more…if you go to a highly selective institution, particularly if you go on to advanced academic or professional education and even more if is a world-renowned university (Harvard, Oxford).” (Wolf, 2009, p. 14).

There is no doubt that the choice of major has a lot to do with earnings, but notice that Wolf has added something new – the status of schools.

So, if the status of schools influences future earnings, what happens when aspiring students compete for entry into highly respected schools?

Just this month the Federal Reserve of Minneapolis released a study asking this very question. Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, (July 2018), performed a meta-study of 42 previous research papers and data sets going all the way back the early 20th century.

A meta-study does not involve any original research. The investigators combine all the data from previous studies and subject it to statistical analyses. The goal is to aggregate data from a range of previous studies to look for long-term trends or consistent results.

Here is what these investigators say about how intense competition for high quality education affects US colleges and universities:

“The key intuition is that although the rising demand for college accepts all types of students equally, it sets off a chain reaction …”

“…The result is a transition from an equilibrium where all students had access to colleges of roughly the same quality to an equilibrium where high-ability students had access to better colleges but low-ability students had access to worse colleges…” (Hendricks, Herrington, and Schoellman, July 2018, p. 36)

In other words, the competition between colleges for good students has created a hierarchy of school quality. People aspiring to college try to get into the best schools, but the schools are “sorting” students by ability. Elite schools accept people with the best student skills, while people with lesser student skills go to less respected schools.

The path one takes to a bachelor’s degree signals social status to employers and graduate programs. A path starting with community college and transfer to a land grant college signals something much different from four years at an elite university or notable local institution.

This starts making sense.

If you know anything about social psychology or sociology you are aware of one very basic truth about human beings – we always arrange ourselves in a social hierarchy. It is such an automatic and inherent ability that we barely take notice. Our social circle usually consists of people very much like us – and that means people with similar socio-economic status.

So, what is it about our family of origin that anchors us so permanently into its socio-economic status?

Annette Lareau tells us all about it in her eye-opening book, Unequal Childhoods (2003). Lareau is a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania who took on a monumental study of how parents transmit social values related to class their children. She and her graduate student assistants observed interactions of poor, working class and middle class families over a period of years and came to some sobering conclusions.

Lareau identified two general differences in the way parents socialized their children, “concert cultivation” and “natural growth”.

Middle class families and “concerted cultivation”.

According to the observations Lareau and her team made, middle class families tend to see their role as nurturing their children. They have the resources to dominate and control their children’s lives with all sorts of structured experiences intended to enrich their lives. These parents are highly involved in managing their children’s after school time, with organized sports, music and dance lessons and other highly structured activities.

They interact with their children much like adults, explaining why things are best done in certain ways, reminding the kids about chores and homework, and negotiating conflicts with reason, logic and compromise rather than using their authority to end them.

According to Lareau, these middle class children tend to develop a sense of entitlement, but also learn sophisticated methods of interacting with adults who are in positions of authority, such as teachers and doctors.

Middle class children, even in the fourth grade, frequently succeed in requesting special attention and privileges from teachers and other adults in positions of authority. They learn this from seeing their parents reminding teachers to respect their children’s learning style, or encouraging their children to ask doctors or dentists specific questions. Lareau contends this grows out the sense of entitlement middle class children develop.

They learn middle class “rules of the game”.

Poor and working class families and “natural growth”.

Lacking the resources of middle class families, poor and working class parents see themselves as authorities keeping their children on the proper path to adulthood. They are less concerned with feelings, opinions and thoughts, and more concerned with compliance and respect.

Their parents are working overtime, or on a second job or using time consuming public transportation and do not have the time or resources to closely shepherd their children. For these families the focus is on simply staying on top of things such as jobs and transportation instead of teaching the “rules of the game” like middle class.

Poor and working class children have far more unstructured time. They spend far more time playing with other children, interacting with extended family like aunts and cousins, and considerable time in cooperative activity with siblings and other children.

School structure is very rigid compared to structure found at home. Poor and working class children very quickly developed a sense of constraint in schools. They readily accept directives by adult authorities such as teachers, but resent the loss of autonomy and self-direction they enjoy at home.

The result is “neck down compliance” – going through the motions of compliance, but not integrating into the education system. For these kids there is no value in school and the point of learning is lost to them.

According to Lareau, poor and working class parents teach their children powerlessness in the face of schools because they don’t know how to assert themselves to authorities any more than their children do.

Putting it all together

So what does all this mean?

First, we find that bachelor’s degrees don’t return the level of value promised by the education industry, at least not for everyone. A researcher reveals a variable – zip code – that seems to influence the outcome of education.

Next, Robert Fuller, physicist and college president, shares a story illustrating how powerful the socio-economic status of the family of origin can be in determining the course of ones life.

After that, an observation from a UK academic about how much more valuable a degree from an elite university is than a degree from lesser-valued schools.

Next, the meta-study from scholars at Minneapolis Federal Reserve supporting the observation that universities have a hierarchy of value. Further, they conclude that schools and students “sort” themselves into hierarchies with poor students attending poor schools at the bottom and excellent students attending excellent schools at the top.

Finally, Annette Lareau identifies the mechanism parents use to transmit assumptions of how the world works into values that determine socio-economic status.

If any of this is an accurate explanation of how socio-economic status passes from one generation to the next, it brings in to question how much influence we have over the course of our lives. See what Robert Sapolosky thinks here, and share a comment.

Here are the sources cited in this article:

Cataldi, E. F., Siegel, P., Shepherd, B., & Cooney, J. (2014). Baccalaureate and Beyond: A First Look at the Employment Experiences and Lives of College Graduates, 4 Years On (B&B: 08/12).

Fuller, R. W. (2003). Somebodies and nobodies: Overcoming the abuse of rank. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers.

Hendricks, L., Herrington, C., & Schoellman, T. (July 2018). College Access and Attendance Patterns. Minneapolis, MN: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

Lareau, A. (2003). Unequal childhoods: Class, race, and family life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Wolf, A. (2009). Misunderstanding Education: Why Increasing College Enrollments Can’t and Won’t Fix the Economy. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 41(4), 10-17.

Thanks for reading! You can fine more like this at www.OnwardThroughTheFog.com


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