The Meritocracy Machine Hiccups

The Meritocracy Machine Hiccups

THE SOURCE: “Is a College Degree Still the Great Equalizer? Intergenerational Mobility Across Levels of Schooling in the United States” by Florencia Torche, in American Journal of Sociology, Nov. 2011.

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By leveling the playing field, a college degree does something magical. A new study, however, concludes that the process runs in reverse once students reach graduate school.

In a study of several large databases, Florencia Torche, a sociologist at New York University, confirmed previous findings about the socioeconomic benefits of a college degree. Yes, children of the affluent have a better chance of getting into prestigious undergraduate institutions. But where your alma mater stands in the U.S. News & World Report rankings is not the only determinant of how you will fare in your professional life. The major you choose, what line of work you enter, and how well you are paid relative to others in your field also matter. In the end, Torche reports, things even out. Once people get college degrees, the power of their socioeconomic background to predict their future status and income is “virtually zero.”
All that changes, however, among those who take the step up to graduate school. The advantages that come with a relatively well-to-do background reassert themselves, especially for men. Among male recipients of graduate degrees, those from families in the bottom third of the income distribution may earn as little as 60 percent as much as their peers from families in the top third.
The field of graduate study men choose may be a particularly important factor in this finding. About 58 percent of men from the top third of the income tier who obtain advanced degrees get them in high-paying professional fields such as business, law, and medicine, while only 44 percent of those from the bottom tier do so.
Torche found significant pay differentials within professional fields as well. Among men with advanced degrees in computer sciences, engineering, and math, for example, those from the lower tier earned only two-thirds as much as those from the upper tier.
What’s most alarming about graduate education’s tendency to reinforce economic inequality is the fact that advanced degrees are increasingly a key to getting ahead. In 1970, only five percent of men and one percent of women held a graduate degree; by 2005 the numbers were 11 and 10 percent, respectively. If Torche’s findings are correct, America’s meritocracy machine is not running smoothly.
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Photo credit: Baxton via flickr

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