Putting It Together: Education

Graduating students in black caps and gowns, yellow tassels, with purple and gold confetti in the air.

Figure 1. What is the ultimate benefit of going to college? For the most economically disadvantaged students, the boost in pay from earning a bachelor’s degree is significantly less than what it is for their wealthier peers.

In this module, you examined education around the world. Education is an institution that helps to socialize people to the cultural norms of their society. What we learn may be about content (history, or math) but also about the hidden curriculum (like how to be a patriotic citizen). Education may be formal (in a school) or informal (like learning how to cook or how to tie your shoes), and it may be mandated by law, as it is in the United States where children must attend for at least ten years of their lives. The quality of education varies within our own country as well as across countries.

Historically, there has been an emphasis on the benefits of attending college to improve one’s opportunities in life, but studies show that those who come from poor families do not see the same level of financial gain from attending college as their wealthier peers.[1] In light of these disparate outcomes, we should consider whether or not attending college really is the “great equalizer.” A study by the Brookings Institute revealed that while attending college did result in salary gains for both poor and non-poor students, the benefits of attending college were not as pronounced for the economically disadvantaged students. Students who came from families below 185 percent of the federal poverty earned 91% more than their no-college peers, but college graduates from families above  the 185 percent line earned significantly more—162% more than their peers with only a high school diploma. As you can see in Figure 1, this gap widens over time, so that by the time the college graduates are sixty, those who are above 185 percent of the federal poverty level earn around $80,000, while those below that same level with a bachelor’s degree will earn closer to $25,000. These trends further illustrate the accumulation of advantage or, conversely, disadvantage, that is observed based on background characteristics such as family income.[2]

Graph showing the smaller "bachelor's bump" in earnings for poorer kids and that over the lifespan, those with income above the poverty line before college make closer to $100,000, while those with Bachelor's degrees under the poverty line made around $50,000. Those above the poverty line with a high school diploma made close to $40,000, and those below the poverty line with a high school diploma made around $25,000.

Figure 2. The “Bachelor’s bump,” or boost in earnings following college, is dramatically higher for those with incomes above 185% of the federal poverty level.

Many factors could be contributing to the disparities in earnings discussed above: career selection, debt at time of graduation, social capital (the social networks developed) from college, marriage preference, family structure, etc. Considering these external mechanisms, can we really argue for education as the great equalizer?


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  1. NCES. Postsecondary Attainment: Differences by Socioeconomic Status. Retrieved from Postsecondary Attainment: Differences by Socioeconomic Status.
  2. Beer, Todd (March 2016). "A PATH TO MOBILITY? How universities maintain the class structure." The Society Pages, Sociology Toolbox. Retrieved from https://thesocietypages.org/toolbox/a-path-to-mobility-how-universities-maintain-the-class-structure/.