In the public psyche and in academic discourse, it is widely believed that a college degree is the great equalizer. In other words, social origins may determine educational attainment, but educational attainment (especially a college degree) determines labor market outcomes and membership to the American middle class. This notion is supported by the empirical work of scholars who have replicated this relationship in the US and abroad using nationally representative datasets (Blau and Duncan 1967; Hout 1980; Hout 1985; Torche 2011). This line of research, known in sociology as the “status attainment” tradition, has dominated public and academic understandings of the relationship between social origins, educational attainment (particularly attainment of a college degree), and occupational destinations for half a century. This is why much attention is paid to first-generation college students’ transitions into and through college. However, after college, first-generation college graduates become part of a larger group: college graduates.
In addition, status attainment theorists have not incorporated rigorous measures of cognitive skills into models that test how a college degree mediates the relationship between social origins and occupational destinations. In other words, do first-generation and multi- generation college graduates have similar cognitive skills? Moreover, controlling for cognitive skill, do first-generation and multi-generation college graduates have similar labor market outcomes?
This project seeks to understand whether there are latent differences in cognitive skills between first- and multi-generation college graduates and investigate whether there are differences in labor market outcomes between first- and multi-generation college graduates, while controlling for a measure of skill.
We find that attaining a college degree ameliorates some aspects of social background advantages, but in other arenas, social background advantages persist despite educational attainment. This finding contributes to a more complicated picture of universities, not solely as places that confer middle-class advantages, but as places that are themselves stratified and produce stratified outcomes. This work provides some empirical support to the recent scholarship that has begun to describe the ways that universities are stratified by class, both between and within universities (Mullen 2012; Armstrong & Hamilton 2013; Carnavale 2013).
Additionally, sociologists and scholars of higher education have established that there are class differences in measures of academic skill upon entering university, i.e. first-generation college students enroll with lower numeracy scores (Reardon 2011; Reardon 2013). Hence, there should be no surprise that we find numeracy skill differences by social background among college graduates. This work is an attempt to add nuance to the post-college conversation.
Having parents with a college degree is a social advantage associated with higher numeracy scores when students enter college. This work suggests that those differences persist after college and into adulthood.
Chosen excerpts by Job Market Monitor. Read the whole story at Persisting gaps: labor market outcomes and numeracy skill levels of first-generation and multi-generation college graduates