Georgetown University Study Shows Higher Education Does Little to Close Inequalities of Race and Gender

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by Amara Phillip

Recent studies have uncovered the benefits of higher education, showing that college graduates continually outpace their less-educated counterparts in lifetime earnings. 

But according to a new report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, college education does little to eradicate widening inequalities between men and women as well as Whites and minorities.

The report, The College Payoff, is an update of a 2002 Census study, which analyzed 1998 demographic data. In the report, the authors looked at ties between occupations and race, gender and earnings.

The report found that college graduates earn 84 percent more than high school graduates, earning an average of $2.3 million over a lifetime.

But given recent demographic changes in higher education, some of the report’s other findings may come as a surprise. Though women are projected to comprise 57 percent of the undergraduate population by 2013, there’s still a 30-point gender gap between the earnings of college educated men and women.

For instance, the authors found that a woman would have to earn a Ph.D. to earn as much as a man with a bachelor’s degree.

“This is a relatively recent phenomenon,” says Dr. Stephen Rose, a research professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce and co-author of the report. “Over the last 10 years, progressively more of the first-year entrants into four-year schools have been women, but they haven’t had much of an impact on the recent labor market.”

Similarly, minorities would have to earn a master’s degree to earn as much as White non-Hispanics with a bachelor’s degrees.

Rose says that he hopes the report will foster a renewed interest in the disparities that exist within K-12 education, because studies have shown that minorities tend to fall behind as early as kindergarten.

Blacks and Hispanics enter kindergarten with fewer words in their vocabulary, says Rose, and this gap widens throughout both middle school and high school.

“Just going through schools has increased the skills gap,” he says. “So it seems to really call for institutional failure.”

“We just want to show what exists and it would seemingly cry for doing something, but we don’t address that issue in this paper,” he says.

Still, Rose suspects that many minority students arrive in school without being equipped with what social scientists call “social capital,” or a network of support from parents and peers which encourages high achievement.

Rose, the son of low-educated immigrants, was pressured to succeed in school from an early age, he says.

“A lot of kids want to succeed in school and they want to go to college because it’s a good thing,” he says. “In inner-city schools kids don’t have those experiences, and they aren’t getting pressure from their peers to shape up. It isn’t a good environment.”

Dr. Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center for Education and Workforce, says that the report’s findings were discouraging because they seemingly contradicted traditional explanations for income disparity.

“The disparities were greater than we thought,” he says.

For example, it’s often assumed that women and minorities choose low-paying occupations or work different hours. But the research looked at workers with the same degrees, the same occupations, and the same work hours, and still found disparities.

Some researchers have suggested that college choice may play a role in the income disparities between Whites and minorities, since Whites are somewhat more likely to attend selective colleges and earn more money as a result.

But this is only true for graduates of top 20 colleges, says Carnevale. This explanation is insufficient, he says, because outside of the top 20 colleges, occupation is a more reliable indicator of earnings.

Another explanation, flouted by labor economists, is that upper-class White college graduates are far more likely to benefit from the “social capital,” often leveraging their parents’ connections into finding well-paying jobs.

“There really is no explanation except that it has to do with support, culture, networks and know-how about how to move through the labor market,” he says.

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