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How Has Educational Expansion Shaped Social Mobility Trends in the United States?

Publication Abstract

Download PDF versionPfeffer, Fabian T., and Florian Hertel. 2014. "How Has Educational Expansion Shaped Social Mobility Trends in the United States?" PSC Research Report No. 14-817. March 2014.

This contribution provides a long-term assessment of intergenerational social mobility trends in the United States across the 20th and early 21st century and assesses the determinants of those trends. In particular, we study how educational expansion has contributed to the observed changes in mobility opportunities across cohorts. Drawing on recently developed decomposition methods, we empirically identify the contribution of each of the multiple channels through which increased rates of educational participation may shape mobility trends. We find that a gradual increase in social class mobility can nearly exclusively be ascribed to an interaction known as the compositional effect, according to which the direct influence of social class backgrounds on social class destinations is reduced among the growing number of individuals attaining higher levels of education. This dominant role of the compositional effect is also due to the fact that, despite pronounced changes in the distribution of education, class inequality in education has remained stable while class returns to education have shown no consistent trend.

Our analyses also provide a cautionary tale about mistaking increasing levels of social class mobility for a general trend towards more fluidity in the United States. The impact of parental education on their offspring's educational and class attainment has grown or remained stable, respectively. Here, the compositional effect pertaining to the direct association between parental education and children's class attainment counteracts a long-term trend of increasing inequality in educational attainment tied to parents' education.

Country of focus: United States of America.

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