Reconsidering the ‘Meritocratic Power of a College Degree’

Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell. Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. (forthcoming)

Open Access


Sociologists of social stratification have repeatedly documented the transmission of socio-economic advantage across generations in the US population as a whole. However, some scholars argue that this link between family background and status attainment does not hold for individuals who attain a bachelor’s degree, claiming that a degree can erase the influence of social origins, a position known as the ‘college as equalizer’ thesis. In this paper, we present new analyses from three successive waves of the National Survey of College Graduates. All three show a substantial intergenerational association between parents’ educational attainment and their collegiate offspring’s earnings when aged 30 to 55. This relationship is evident for men and for women considered separately, and for individuals who earn only a bachelor’s degree, as well as for those attaining higher degrees. The intergenerational coefficients are consistent over time and are not attributable to age or career stage. Overall, these analyses suggest that the intergenerational transmission of status remains strong even among the college-educated and that this has been the case for birth cohorts spanning from the late 1930s to the 1980s.

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