Educational Systems, Intergenerational Mobility and Social Segmentation

By Chusseau, Nathalie; Hellier, Joel | The European Journal of Comparative Economics, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Educational Systems, Intergenerational Mobility and Social Segmentation


Chusseau, Nathalie, Hellier, Joel, The European Journal of Comparative Economics


1. Introduction (3)

In the economic literature, the impact of human capital acquisition upon social segmentation has been analysed through the emergence of under education traps, i.e., situations in which a proportion of the population remains unskilled from generation to generation.

In the early approach of Becker and Tomes (1979) with a perfectly competitive credit market, all the dynasties converge towards the same human capital in the long term. Assuming credit market imperfections, Loury (1981) and Becker and Tomes (1986) show that this convergence still holds but it is slowed down, thereby creating a 'low mobility trap' (Piketty, 2000).

These rather optimistic diagnoses were subsequently questioned by a number of works that analysed the emergence of under education traps. Several determinants can cause the emergence of such traps: a credit constraint with a fixed cost of education (Galor and Zeira, 1993, Barham et al., 1995), an S-shaped education function (Galor and Tsiddon, 1997), a neighbourhood effect resulting from local externalities (Benabou, 1993, 1996a, 1996b; Durlauf 1994, 1996), limited parental altruism (Das, 2007) etc. In most of these works, the trap results from non convexities that make certain individuals select low education. However, these approaches typically suppose that the institutional access to education is equally guaranteed. Financial constraints, family and social characteristics and limited abilities are then the main factors that explain the differences in educational choices and the related social segmentation.

However, since Weber (1906), the sociological literature has drawn attention to the fact that the educational system itself can create social segmentation (Bidwell and Friedkin, 1988, for an early review). It has been underlined that the type of knowledge that is promoted corresponds to the cultural backgrounds of the children from the upper and middle classes (Sorokin, 1959; Bourdieu and Passeron, 1970; Baudelot and Establet, 1971) and that families from the lower classes overestimate the cost of and underestimate the return from education (Boudon, 1973, 1974). In addition, because of better information and network effects, the children from higher classes select better educational strategies, and they have access to better positions than children from lower classes even when they possess the same degree (Anderson, 1961; Boudon, 1973, 1974; Thelot, 1982). Finally, a number of analysts have emphasised the influence of the selection pattern, i.e. the very structure of the educational system, on the formation and the persistence of social segmentation (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1970; Bowles and Gintis, 1976). Several recent empirical studies confirm the impact of the educational system upon social stratification. Using data from an international survey, Shavit and Muller (2000) find that the institutional characteristics of the school systems partly explain the differences in educational and occupational attainment across countries. Similarly, by comparing the transition from school to work in France, Germany, the UK and the US, Kerckhoff (2000) concludes that the differences across these countries are partially due to the differences in their educational systems.

If sociologists have studied for a long time the impact of hierarchical educational systems upon social stratification, this has only recently been investigated by the economic theory. Driskill and Horowitz (2002) and Su (2004) analyse hierarchical educational systems by focusing on the allocation of public funding between basic and advanced education. They study the impacts upon growth, welfare and income distribution, but not on social stratification. Bertocchi and Spagat (2004) model a three-level educational system (basic education and secondary education divided between vocational and general studies) so as to analyse social stratification during the different stages of economic development. …

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