Is a College Degree Still the Great Equalizer? Intergenerational Mobility across Levels of Schooling in the U.S.

Florencia Torche, New York University

Twenty years ago, Hout (1984, 1988) demonstrated that there is a strong intergenerational class association among individuals without a college degree, but the association virtually disappears for college graduates. In other words, a college degree appears to fulfill the promise of meritocracy – erasing the advantages of origin in the competition for economic success. This paper examines whether the “meritocratic power” of a college degree persists today, after substantial expansion and diversification of the post-secondary educational system. I use three data sets – the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1979, the General Social Survey and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics – to analyze the intergenerational association in terms of social class, occupational status, earnings and total family income. Findings suggest that a college degree still weakens the advantages of birth in the early 21st century. Surprisingly, the influence of social origins appears to reemerge among advanced-degree holders. The U-shaped pattern of parental influence is similar across genders.

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Presented in Session 58: Access to and the Impact of College Education