Growing Gaps: Educational Inequality around the World

Growing Gaps: Educational Inequality around the World

Growing Gaps: Educational Inequality around the World

Growing Gaps: Educational Inequality around the World


The last half century has seen a dramatic expansion in access to primary, secondary, and higher education in many nations around the world. Educational expansion is desirable for a country's economy, beneficial for educated individuals themselves, and is also a strategy for greater social harmony. But has greater access to education reduced or exacerbated social inequality? Who are the winners and the losers in the scramble for educational advantage?

In Growing Gaps, Paul Attewell and Katherine S. Newman bring together an impressive group of scholars to closely examine the relationship between inequality and education. The relationship is not straightforward and sometimes paradoxical. Across both post-industrial societies and the high-growth economies of the developing world, education has become the central path for upward mobility even as it maintains and exacerbates existing inequalities. In many countries there has been a staggering growth of private education as demand for opportunity has outpaced supply, but the families who must fund this human capital accumulation are burdened with more and more debt. Privatizing education leads to intensified inequality, as students from families with resources enjoy the benefits of these new institutions while poorer students face intense competition for entry to under-resourced public universities and schools. The ever-increasing supply of qualified, young workers face class- or race-based inequalities when they attempt to translate their credentials into suitable jobs. Covering almost every continent,Growing Gapsprovides an overarching and essential examination of the worldwide race for educational advantage and will serve as a lasting achievement towards understanding the root causes of inequality.


This volume grew out of an annual conference sponsored by Princeton University’s Global Network on Inequality, a group of twenty-five research institutions around the world that are actively engaged in research on the causes, consequences, and remedies for inequality. Now spanning universities and research institutes in Latin America (Brazil and Chile), Africa (South Africa), Asia (China, Korea, India, Japan), the Middle East (Israel), and Europe (Ireland, England, Spain, Italy, France, Finland, Denmark, Germany, and Poland), the network has been in existence since 2004 and continues to grow to incorporate new countries and new fields of study.

Inequality is growing rapidly both in postindustrial societies and in the high growth economies of the developing world. The symptoms can be measured in Gini coefficients and gated communities, in unequal access to institutions of social mobility and the emergence of stark health disparities, in the flows of international migration and the local patterns of segregation. The consequences are visible in unequal patterns of educational attainment, lopsided engagement in elections, and earlier mortality for some groups rather than others. Indeed, few problems of interest to sociologists, political scientists, labor economists, and social psychologists are unrelated to the broad patterns of inequality sweeping the modern world.

Access to education is a critical piece of this puzzle. Whether education is regarded as a proxy (or crucible) of skill and therefore the engine of human capital development, or a set of credentials that permit status groups to close ranks and claim advantage in a competitive market, it is clear that individual life chances and national wealth depends centrally on educational outcomes. Whether economic growth leads to an opening of opportunity (as has been the case in the social democracies) or a ferocious competition for the small number of slots available in public institutions (as is true in the developed countries with weaker welfare states) is a key question for scholars interested in the intersection between inequality and education. The staggering growth of private higher education has developed in response to the inadequate supply of opportunity, but poses serious problems of debt for families who must fund this human capital accumulation on their own.

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