Research Measures Wealth Effect in Education ; Social Status a Big Factor in Access to Top Colleges, Even When Field Is Leveled

By Guttenplan, Dd | International New York Times, December 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Research Measures Wealth Effect in Education ; Social Status a Big Factor in Access to Top Colleges, Even When Field Is Leveled


Guttenplan, Dd, International New York Times


A new study on access to high-status universities in Britain, the United States and Australia found that the family's social background figured strongly.

While it may be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, it has long been thought easier for the rich man's son or daughter to get into Harvard. Or Oxford.

But thanks to a new study by John Jerrim at the Institute of Education at the University of London we now know how much easier. At a time when governments on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean are increasingly facing questions about the widening gap between rich and poor, Dr. Jerrim studied access to high-status universities in Britain, the United States and Australia.

"My background is economics, and if you look at the economics, kids that go to certain universities earn a premium on their wages during their working lives over and above the premium you get just by going to college," Dr. Jerrim said. In the United States that premium is about 6 percent, he said.

"The other reason for looking at these particular universities is that they seem to influence access to certain jobs and to act as a signal to high-flying graduate recruiters," he said. "If you take the job of being prime minister of Britain, for example, you almost have to have gone to Oxford."

Dr. Jerrim found that students whose parents come from a professional or managerial background are three times as likely to enter a high status university in Britain or Australia as students with working class parents. For the sake of the study a "high status" university in Britain was defined by membership in the Russell Group of large research institutions; in Australia the study looked at students attending the "Group of Eight" coalition of leading universities.

The same threefold advantage applied to students attending prestigious public universities in the United States -- those described as "highly selective" by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, which rates schools based on the test scores of incoming students. At elite private American universities, moreover, students are six times as likely to come from a professional as a poor or working class background, Dr. Jerrim found.

Social background has long been known to be highly correlated with academic achievement. Especially in the United States, where public schools are partly funded by local property taxes, students who attend schools in richer neighborhoods often outperform their peers from more disadvantaged areas. In Britain, too, both Oxford and Cambridge have long pointed to a dearth of students from poorer backgrounds who achieve the standard required in exams at the end of high school to be considered for admission to most courses at those universities. In 2008, among students whose family incomes were low enough to make them eligible for government-subsidized free school meals, only 232 students in the whole country received the exam grades needed to put them in contention for "Oxbridge" places.

Yet that seems to be only part of the story: Dr. Jerrim said he was surprised to discover a considerable gap in access to selective colleges and universities even after accounting for differences in academic performance as measured by grades or standardized tests.

"We looked at things like SAT scores and grade point average for American students, and G.C.S.E. and PISA scores in Britain," he said. In Britain, students currently take G.C.S.E.s -- national written examinations -- between the ages of 15 and 16. The Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, exams are standardized tests in math, science and reading administered to 15- year-olds by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or O.E.C.D.

"When you take academic achievement into account you can explain some of the difference, but not all of it," said Dr. Jerrim. In Australia, factors related to academic achievement explained about half the difference in access to the country's elite universities; in Britain academic factors explained 73 percent of the difference. …

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