Education and Inequality

Education and Social Mobility

Increased education is strongly linked to upward mobility, while lack of education correlates to lower socioeconomic status.

Education has a strong relationship with upward social mobility. However, as educational credentials become more common in a society, education can function as a gatekeeping institution. In other words, those who have access to good schools have better chances of upward social mobility. Those who do not have access to a good education are less likely to experience upward mobility. Both public policy and social and cultural patterns can influence which groups have access to a good education. Levels of school funding, combined with the different needs and resources of different student populations, can impact the quality of a school or school district. High-quality schools support upward social mobility, while low-quality schools inhibit it.

One reason that education is linked to upward mobility is that there is a strong correlation between people's level of education and their type of employment and income. In the United States, earnings and employment rates tend to increase with every level of education achieved. Earnings and unemployment rates are lowest for workers without a high school diploma and significantly higher for those with a college degree or an advanced degree.

Sociologists also investigate the links between ordered and disordered neighborhoods, educational attainment, and social mobility. Students who live in disordered neighborhoods or who attend decaying and underresourced schools can be influenced by their environment to believe that educational success and upward social mobility are not realistic goals for them. This in turn can influence their performance in school, leading to less educational achievement and reduced chances for employment or social mobility.

School Quality, Funding, and Neighborhoods

Sources of funding and neighborhood demographic composition impact school quality in the United States.

Both funding and demographic factors influence school quality. In the United States, schools are mostly funded through local taxes. Cities and school districts that include more high-income areas collect more taxes, meaning those schools have more funding. Housing patterns also impact schools significantly. Most neighborhoods are relatively homogenous, populated by families of similar income levels and similar socioeconomic status (a combination of income level, education, and occupation). Income levels can impact whether a neighborhood is ordered or disordered. An ordered neighborhood is characterized by high levels of upkeep and good infrastructure. A disordered neighborhood is characterized by greater poverty, less upkeep, and greater decay of the environment. Schools in ordered and disordered neighborhoods serve different student populations, whose families have different economic and social resources.

Schools reflect the demographic composition of the neighborhoods they serve. In neighborhoods where most adults are highly educated and earn high incomes, schools tend to serve children who have higher levels of economic, social, and cultural capital (knowledge, resources, and opportunities). Furthermore, schools in wealthy areas often have more parent volunteers, in part because of greater numbers of mothers who do not work outside the home. Wealthy schools often have parent associations that are able to raise significant amounts of money to supplement the public funding their schools receive. Schools in lower-income areas are less likely to have parents that can volunteer during the day or contribute large amounts of money to the school. Schools with low-income student populations are sometimes eligible to receive additional state or federal funding. However, this funding is often not adequate to meet the needs of the school and frequently is not sufficient to create equity with wealthy schools.

Education and Social, Economic, and Cultural Capital

Education is closely linked to social, cultural, and economic capital; this connection can reinforce patterns of inequality in a society.

Approaches to education, including how education is funded, can greatly impact social and economic inequality in a society. Countries with lower inequality tend to provide children with a better education. In societies with greater inequality, education is more uneven. The children of low-income and high-income parents show similar cognitive abilities at very early ages. These abilities often diverge as children get older, because of differences in environment, opportunity, and education. This leads to differences in educational attainment (level of educational success) that, in turn, lead to differences in employment and earnings. The resources and facilities used for education can have a strong influence on educational success rates. When school resources are distributed unequally in a society, the power of education to reduce inequality is diminished. Instead, schools can end up reinforcing the status quo.

Education, social and economic opportunity, and cultural capital—behaviora, knowledge, credentials, and skills—are closely linked. Social and economic opportunities are often a function of people's level of social capital, resources acquired through networks of relationships that grant access to power and opportunity. People who acquire one of these assets are more likely to acquire the others, in a repeating cycle leading to increasing accumulation of all these assets. Good education tends to lead to more opportunity and more social and cultural capital. Yet good education is often accessible to groups that already have higher levels of social and economic opportunity and cultural capital. Conversely, lack of these assets leads to a cycle of reinforced lack of access and opportunity.

Education is a crucial factor in these cycles. Schools that are overcrowded or have fewer resources and programs are less effective. Likewise, schools with fewer highly trained and experienced teachers are less likely to provide a high-quality education. School quality is closely linked with neighborhood and housing patterns. Families with similar income levels tends to live near one another. Wealthier neighborhoods have schools with more resources. Low-income neighborhoods often have schools with insufficient resources. However, when schools in low-income neighborhoods have adequate funding and resources, students have access to high-quality education. This in turn provides more employment opportunities, which can lead to the acquisition of more economic, social, and cultural capital.
Education often leads to higher income, more opportunities, and greater cultural capital. These social gains tend to create a cycle of more gains, resulting in social mobility.

Education, Socioeconomic Status, and Inequality

Family income level, socioeconomic status, and race are factors in educational opportunity and attainment.

In the United States, multiple factors—including socioeconomic status, income, race, and ethnicity—are linked to educational opportunity and educational attainment. Socioeconomic status (SES), a combined measure of income, education, and occupation, is a predictor of educational success. Children whose parents have a higher SES are more likely to do well in school, to graduate from high school, and to go to college. Children's success in school is linked to family income level, one element of SES. The link between family income and children's educational success is complex and has multiple causes. One issue is that children from high-income families tend to live in neighborhoods that have high-quality schools. Children from low-income families are more likely to attend schools of lower quality and to have less experienced teachers.

Other factors in the link between family income and success in school include parents' levels of stress, available time to support children's education, and money to invest in enrichment activities. Low-income parents experience higher levels of stress. They often work multiple jobs and thus have less time to oversee their children's education. They have little or no disposable income to invest in their children's education. High-income parents can buy educational goods, including books and games. They can pay for services such as tutoring, preschools with highly qualified teachers and low student-teacher ratios, and enrichment experiences such as art and music lessons. Students from low-income families have less access to these kinds of resources. Family income level is also a strong indicator of college attendance. Data from 2016 shows that in the United States nearly 80 percent of students from the highest-income families go to college directly following high school, compared to less than 60 percent for the lowest-income families. Another issue is that low-income families often forego after-school childcare when children are old enough to be on their own once school lets out. Children who are on their own after school have fewer opportunities to interact with adults who can help with homework or provide them with learning outside of school. Yet another factor in the link between income, SES, and children's achievement in school is that parents of low-income students often do not have a college education. All these factors combine to provide less opportunity for intergenerational transmission of knowledge, the passing on to children the necessary skills and cultural capital to succeed in school and society.

Race and ethnicity also play a role in education. In the United States, race and ethnicity are strongly correlated to high school dropout rate. Hispanics and African Americans have a higher dropout rate than Asian Americans and white students. Researchers note that these differences are linked the socioeconomic status, the quality of schools each group has to attend, school discipline policies that often treat students of color harshly, and the amount of social and cultural capital possessed by members of these groups. Another factor is that most public school teachers in the United States are white, although over half of public school students are nonwhite. A 2018 review of research concluded that students often benefit from having teachers who share their racial or ethnic background. A 2017 study found this effect is particularly strong for African American children. Black boys who had at least one black teacher at some point between third and fifth grade were less likely to drop out of high school. Black boys and girls who had at least one black teacher during this period were both more likely to attend college.