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9.2D: Education

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    In the U.S., educational attainment is strongly correlated to income and occupation, and therefore to social class.

    Learning Objectives

    • Describe how higher educational attainment relates to social class

    Key Points

    • American society values post-secondary education very highly; it is one of the main determinants of social class, along with income, wealth, and occupation.
    • Tertiary education (or “higher education”) is required for many middle and upper class professions.
    • Educational attainment is strongly related to income in the United States.

    Key Terms

    • low-interest loans: Money lent with only a small percentage of interest accruing as a charge, often made available to students.
    • scholarship: Monetary aid given to a student to assist them in paying for an education.
    • tertiary education: Higher education, including college education and vocational programs beyond high school.

    The educational attainment of the U.S. population parallels that of many other industrialized countries, with the vast majority of the population having completed secondary education and a rising number of college graduates outnumbering high school dropouts. As a whole, the U.S. population is spending more years in formal educational programs. American society highly values post-secondary education, or education beyond high school; it is one of the main determinants of class and status in the U.S. In fact, the attainment of post-secondary and graduate degrees is often considered the most important feature distinguishing middle and upper middle class people from lower or working class people. In this regard, universities can be regarded as the gatekeepers of the professional middle class.

    Many middle-class professions require post-secondary degrees, which are classified as tertiary education (or “higher education”). Tertiary education is rarely free, but the costs do vary widely; tuition at elite private colleges often exceeds $200,000 for a four-year program while public colleges and universities typically charge much less (for state residents). Many public institutions, such as the University of California system, rival elite private schools in reputation and quality. Many colleges and universities offer scholarships to make higher education more affordable. Government and private lenders also offer low-interest loans. Still, by all accounts, the average cost of education is increasing.

    In the U.S., income is strongly related to educational attainment. In 2005, the majority of people with doctorate and professional degrees were counted among the nation’s top 15% of income earners. The income of people with bachelor’s degrees was above the national median, while the median income of people with some college education remained near the national median. According to U.S. Census Bureau, 9% of persons aged 25 or older had a graduate degree, 27.9% had a bachelor’s degree or more, and 53% had attended at least some college. According to the same census, 85% of the U.S. population had graduated from high school. These numbers indicate that the average American does not have a college degree or higher. Having a degree is strongly linked to occupation, and therefore income; degree holders work in more highly skilled professions and earn more on average. Thus, having a bachelor’s or graduate degree is a strong indicator of social class.

    Income and educational levels differ by race, age, household configuration, and geography. Although the incomes of both men and women are associated with higher educational attainment (higher incomes for higher educational attainment), there remains an income gap between races and genders at each educational level.

    Education Pays: This graphic, released by the US Department of Labor, shows the correlation between higher education, employment status, and income. The more education a person attains, the more likely they are to be employed in high paying occupations.

    9.2D: Education is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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