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The Relationship of Social Class and Educational Attainment in the US sample essay


Social class typically refers to an individual’s position in an established hierarchy in a particular society. Classifications of people have been established in all societies since the dawn of civilization. The hierarchy may be based on wealth, ability, education, occupation, even geographical location. Historically, social class pertains to groupings to refer to occupation or role, i.e. landlord or tenant.

Each grouping is accompanied by privileges and responsibilities, with varying levels of control and power within the society. It also generally carries some type of class identity, so while it applies to individuals, it is not merely a personal characteristic, but exists within a certain context that applies to groups of people. This shared identity is affected by attitudes and lifestyle of its members, and thus establishes a “culture” or a set of values and practices. (“Social class”) The purpose of this paper is to consider current research that deal with the degree of correlation, if any, between social class and educational attainment in the United States.

Review of Literature

Education is considered the most widely used aspect that determines social position together with occupational status and income, but none of these factors are pure concepts to be taken in isolation. They are each affected by other social factors such as race and ethnicity. Educational attainment directly affects social status in the sense that it provides credentials and access to economic benefits as well as establishes social networks. In the period between 1940 and 1980, the number of persons to have completed higher education has increased to 68.6% of the total US population according to census data. (MacArthur and MacArthur “Measurement approaches”)

The role of education in achieving social status is an important one, and attempts to study the variables that directly affect educational outcomes usually focus on parental education and occupation as well as race, gender and cognitive ability. A study of 1,927 subjects focused on the effect of self-esteem and locus of control (nature of environmental control) on educational outcomes of children net of these other factors. It was found self-esteem and locus of control affect educational outcomes independent of each other and of other variables. (Wang, Kick, Fraser and Burns 288-289)

While some people are born into a class, such as royalty, most develop social mobility through shifts in education, occupation or income. There are no tangible measurements to establish social class, but it may be inferred from general guidelines based on achievements. Of the indicators of social status, education is considered the simplest and most universal, although it is limited generally up to early adulthood, when educational activity typically ends.

Social class may have significant effects on educational attainment mostly because social class is typically associated with economic capacity. Wealth has a substantial impact on education because it provides access to resources that may not be available to one of lower economic means. Other characteristics of social class include levels of self esteem and locus of control, which also has significant effects on educational outcomes and occupational choice. (“Social class”)

Rouse and Barrow state that students from lower socioeconomic families tend to attain less in education because they have greater psychological costs and less access to good schools that those from families with higher incomes (99). Since higher education attainment translates to occupations with higher earning potential, the long-term effect of this trend is to propagate a cyclical pattern of disadvantaged families producing low-earning progeny who will in turn raise a disadvantaged family. Attempts to break this cycle through programs like the “No Child Left Behind Act” has met with small success. Many studies conclude that smaller class sizes are the most effective way to improve student achievement.

The importance of social class in influencing a person’s life prospects is investigated in the US. The goal of providing equal opportunity for all Americans in achieving success in life solely through their own efforts and skills regardless of social class is as yet not completely in place. Social class still has a great influence on an individual’s chance in leading a productive existence despite efforts to level the playing field. The tendency for parents, even in an open and fair democracy, to extend the advantages which they have to further the interests of their children prevails, resulting in a greater access to opportunities and resources. This is especially true of people from the higher socioeconomic class in the United States. (McMurrer and Sawhill “Class Still Matters”)

Data from following the progress of 20,000 eight graders from 1988 to 1994 from the National Education Longitudinal Study (NELS) of 1988 provided a wealth of information about the educational experiences of the subjects. The subjects were divided in four groups based on their socioeconomic status, the first group (Group 1) being the most advantaged and the fourth group (Group 4) the most disadvantaged.

Results showed that the average test scores of children from Group 1 were higher that those from Group 4. Group 4 children were more likely to be held back and to drop out of high school than those in Group 1. The results also suggest that parental abilities, which may be hereditary, may account for the economic status of the family, and should also be considered as an influence on educational attainment. (Rouse and Barrow 100-102)

A study by Gordon Dahl and Lance Lochner focused on the effect of higher income on academic performance. They found for every $ 1,000 increase in income for a family with two children, math and reading scores also increased up to 5%. (Rouse and Barrow 104)

The correlation between fathers and sons in the US with regards to income and occupations is very strong, to a degree of 0.4, which means that there is a significant probability that an adult son will approximate the income of the father, and sons of white collar workers has double the probability than sons of blue collar workers to become a white collar worker. (McMurrer and Sawhill “Class Still Matters”)


Recent trends suggest that the attainment of higher education has begun to change this pattern of occupational mimicry. This is fueled by the economic boom in the US which has unfortunately slowed down, and the trend of an upwardly mobile labor force has slowed down with it. Overall, upward mobility composition is that of growing individual opportunity (college education) and a lackluster economy. Social class in no longer the force it had been before, which will benefit people from the lower socioeconomic brackets. For those in the upper social strata, the emphasis on individual ability and skills and the decline of social class importance will likely result in a drop in social status. (McMurrer and Sawhill “The Offsetting Effect of Economic Growth”)

One considerable portion of the US population which may benefit from this decline in insular social classification is second-generation Americans, or those who were born in the US of immigrant parents. Nearly one-fourth of young Americans are second-generation immigrants and most are found in the cities like Los Angeles. Recent migration trends in the US have transformed the social character of American society to a marked degree.

The long-term effects of these patterns are most evident in the educational attainment profile of the population. On average, these second generation population, especially those of Asian ethnic origin, exhibit better academic performance than native-born Americans. As an illustration, 32% of all Asian high school graduates who applied for slots in the University of California was accepted, as compared to 16% eligible native-born American, and 7% of Latino-descended applicants. (Feliciano)

Feliciano accounts for these disparities by considering two explanations: cultural values, belief systems and attitude differences, i.e. children of Asian families tend to be more successful because of the high currency placed on academic achievement; and structural differences, i.e. accessibility of opportunities and resources. Immigrant social class status may be different before and after migration to the US, which could explain why some groups are more successful at overcoming barriers to educational attainment such as poverty and low socioeconomic status than others.

To investigate this theory, relevant pre-migration information on educational levels in 31 immigrant groups was determined by cross-referencing census data in the US and the home country of the immigrant group from 1997 to 2001, using the Net Difference Index. The subjects were second-generation Americans ages 20-40 with at least some college education. Results show that immigrants to the US tended to have attained higher educational levels than those who stayed in the home country, especially those who come from countries remote from the US, such as Asian countries. (Feliciano “Methodology”)

In considering the correlation of pre-migration class status with second-generation educational attainment, a strong positive relationship was revealed. Regardless to their social status in the US, children of highly-educated immigrants demonstrated the highest educational attainment rates.

While pre-migration class status had a significant effect on second-generation educational attainment, economic security in the US as a factor accounted for 41% of the variability. In effect, to accurately account for ethnic variability in academic success among second-generation Americans, social status of the parents before and after migration should be considered. Such cross-referencing adequately explains 60% of the disparity in educational attainment observed in this population segment. (Feliciano “Pre-Migration Origins and Second Generation Outcomes”)


Social class is a nebulous concept that dictates the individual’s eventual role in society to a great extent. Educational attainment depends in a significant way on social class because of the socioeconomic factors that influence is such as income, occupation and family values are all related to social class. Individuals from the higher social class are more likely to have parents who possess high cognitive ability, more self-esteem, more money and better access to resources that would enable the attainment of higher education such as college.

Second-generation Americans with immigrant parents who have lower social status in the US but higher social status in the home country are more likely as well to complete a college education. However, public policies and other programs aimed at providing higher education access to individuals from lower social classes could help to break the like father-like son trend in educational attainment and occupational choice and facilitate an upwardly mobile majority.


“Social class.” Encyclopedia of Public Health. 2007. 15 March 2007.

Feliciano, Cynthia. “Another way to assess the second generation: look at the parents.” Migration Information Source. 1 May 2006. 15 March 2007.

MacArthur, John D. and MacArthur, Catherine T. “Educational Status.” UCSF. 8 August 2001. 15 March 2007.

Mani, Anandi and Mullin, Charles H. “Choosing the right pond: social approval and occupational choice.” Williams College. October 2001. 15 March 2007.

McMurrer, Daniel P. and Sawhill, Isabel V. “The declining importance of class.” Urban Institute. Number 4 in Series, “Opportunity in America” 01 April 1997. 15 March 2007.

Rouse, Cecilia Elena and Barrow, Lisa. “U.S. elementary and secondary schools: equalizing opportunity or replicating the status quo?” The Future of Children 16.2 (2006) 15 March 2007.

Wang, Li-Ya, Kick, Edward, Fraser, James, and Burns, Thomas Jerome. “Status attainment in America: the roles of locus of control and self-esteem in educational and occupational outcomes.” The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (2007) 15 March 2007.

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