Intergenerational Mobility at the Top of the Educational Distribution

Sociology of Education

Research has shown that intergenerational mobility is higher among individuals with a college degree than
those with lower levels of schooling. However, mobility declines among graduate degree holders. This find-
ing questions the meritocratic power of higher education. Prior research has been hampered, however, by
the small samples of advanced degree holders in representative surveys. Drawing on a large longitudinal
data set of PhD holders—the Survey of Doctorate Recipients—this study examines intergenerational
mobility among the American educational elite, separately for men and women and different racial/ethnic
groups. Results show substantial mobility among PhD holders. The association between parents’ education
and adult children’s earnings is moderate among men and nonexistent among women with doctoral
degrees. However, women’s earnings converge to an average level that is much lower than men’s, signaling
‘‘perverse openness’’ for women even at the top of the educational distribution. Among men, there is var-
iation in mobility by race and ethnicity. The intergenerational socioeconomic association is null for Asian
men, small for white and black men, and more pronounced for Hispanics. Educational and occupational
mediators account for intergenerational association among blacks and whites but not Hispanic men. A
doctoral degree largely detaches individuals from their social origins in the United States, but it does
not eliminate all sources of inequality.