Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Does education increase social mobility? A look at U.S. history

By Claude Fischer

students in graduation caps and gowns
(Peg Skorpinski photo)

Just about everyone from left to right believes in the power of more education for more Americans, that more education for all will open up opportunity, raise standards of living, and reduce economic inequality. Some scholars, however, are skeptical.

schoolhouse They have at least three related arguments. One is that the content of education – perhaps beyond basic literacy and skills –  does not matter for individuals’ economic attainment, that what matters is the person’s relative level of education. When few people have graduated high school, doing so will make a big difference, but when most people have a high school diploma, then real success then requires going to college. Employers just up their requirements as educational attainment spreads, so what is important is being ahead of the pack.

Another argument is that educational degrees just signal or “credential” people with talent, people who would have succeeded with or without the extra classwork. More degrees for more people will not change that.

A third argument is that advantaged families find ways to pass on advantage to their children even as education becomes more widespread. They do that by supporting their sons’ and daughters’ attainment of yet further, more exclusive schooling, maintaining leads over those from less advantaged backgrounds and thus maintaining the inheritance of inequality (see, e.g., here ).

A just-published article takes a look at what happened to equality and social mobility in the United States when a major educational reform swept through the nation in the nineteenth century: compulsory schooling.

Spreading schooling?

Emily Rauscher of the University of Kansas, reporting in the May issue of the American Journal of Sociology , took advantage of the fact that different states implemented compulsory schooling laws at different times, from 1852 in Massachusetts to after 1900 in much of the South. Typically, those laws required at least 12 weeks of attendance for children from ages about 8 to about 14, varying a bit by state.

students in graduation caps and gowns

Rauscher used individual records from U.S. Censuses, 1850 to 1930, that allowed her to link information about white boys in one census – including information about their fathers’ occupations – with information about those sons decades later, now grown up – including information about their own occupations as adults. (Available data on women and nonwhites are more scattered. Also: I simplify the account here of a quite complex analysis.)

As children, different boys across the country were either exposed to or not exposed to laws requiring school attendance depending on exactly how old they were and in which states they lived. Boys in Michigan, for example, faced compulsory attendance starting in 1871, while boys in nearby Illinois not until 1883. What difference, then, did it make to schooling, upward mobility, and equality of opportunity to live in a state that compelled all parents to send their children to school rather than in one that did not?

Rauscher’s first results show that the laws made a difference in schooling, but only for the sons of working-class and farm fathers. These boys attended school at notably higher rates after the laws went into effect, reaching the attendance levels of boys from middle-class families. In that way, the policy was a success in equalizing school attendance.

Spreading opportunity?

If this more widespread schooling also equalized economic opportunities, Rauscher reasons, then the connection or correlation between fathers’ occupations and heir sons’ eventual occupations should have become weaker once a state adopted compulsory schooling. It did not. In fact, for a brief period after implementation of the laws, the advantages of having a middle-class father grew a bit stronger.

Rauscher suggests that there was a period of turmoil when the laws went into effect and schools expanded and that middle-class families were better able to manage their children’s education during the transitions. In the end, however, the equalizing of economic opportunity – at least as demonstrated by a weakening correlation between fathers’ and sons’ occupational attainments – did not happen.

She is shy about applying her results to our times, which are so different in many ways, except to suggest that educational institutions ought to be better prepared for major shifts. (She might have wondered, for example, how colleges would absorb a shift to a free-tuition system.)

More broadly, these results should make us wonder whether more education for all is – however great it would be just for the sake of learning – a solution for inequality and blocked mobility. Perhaps more focused efforts might work, such as intensified help in finishing college for disadvantaged students, aiding them in competing with children of well-off parents. Or maybe the inequality problem lies elsewhere in our society, perhaps in our wage or tax structures, rather than in our schools

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American Life from American History .