Increasing social mobility has emerged as a key governmental policy goal in the United Kingdom in recent years. This has largely occurred in response to a multi-decade study that showed substantial social immobility in the UK. Many of the proposed policy responses to this lack of social mobility are informed by research that has highlighted the important role education can play in “leveling the playing field.” The role education might play has won further political support in light of recent statistics that suggest that socially mobile people achieved their new status through advanced education in more than 90% of cases. As a result, the extent to which young people from disadvantaged backgrounds can gain access to and succeed at different levels of education is of keen political interest.
Opponents to such policy proposals, however, argue that the role education could play in driving social mobility is significantly weakened by the fact that even after accounting for differences in high school and college education there remains a strong link between an individual’s family’s socioeconomic background and eventual adult economic success. To explain this observed relationship, some economic theorists argue that individuals from more advantaged backgrounds have greater levels of parental investment earlier on in life, providing that individual with greater access to opportunities that develop skills which have marketable value but are only partially accounted for and reflected in educational attainment.
In response to this connection between familial socioeconomic background and eventual adult economic success, some sociological theorists have argued that educational attainment in and of itself is insufficient to secure the same occupational status and labor market successes for disadvantaged students as for those from more advantaged backgrounds. These theorists argue that educational attainment is insufficient because students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds may lack other forms of capital, such as social capital, that is not accounted for in a solely educational model. Thus, policy initiatives that focus on education alone may not have the desired effect on social mobility.
Previous research has hypothesised that one reason why there remains significant differences in wages between graduates from different socioeconomic backgrounds—wage differences even amongst those studying the same subjects at the same institutions who end up with the same degree—is that the educationally focused model may not fully capture the entire range of skills and experiences that students enter college with. For example, the environment a student is raised in might afford him or her more opportunities to develop social and cultural capital than a peer from a more disadvantaged background. If it is the case that individuals from higher socioeconomic backgrounds have different forms of capital that individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds lack, this would go far to explain the well-established differences observed in future earnings.
Research supporting the educationally focused model argues that part of the benefit of coming from a higher socioeconomic background may be the greater access to higher status and higher paying jobs advanced education provides. However, more recent findings suggest that even when this increased access is accounted for, there still remain significant differences in earning potential based on an individual’s socioeconomic background. The fact that we continue to find substantial differences between the earnings of graduates from lower and higher socioeconomic backgrounds, even after accounting for their subsequent labor market experiences, suggests that higher education alone is insufficient to “level the playing field” between otherwise approximately identical individuals. Thus, there remains a need for continued research to better inform British policymakers interested in the role higher education plays as a route to social mobility.
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