Intergenerational Mobility at the Top of the Educational Distribution

2018
Author(s)

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 finding 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 inter-generational 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 variation in mobility by race and ethnicity. The inter-generational socioeconomic association is null for Asian men, small for white and black men, and more pronounced for Hispanics. Educational and occupational mediators account for inter-generational 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.