Advanced Degrees and Social Mobility in the United States

R. Marc Johnson, University of Pennsylvania


Attainment of advanced (graduate and professional) degrees provides benefits for individuals including higher earnings, access to high status occupations, and social standing, all factors in social mobility. These benefits are in addition to those from attainment of the bachelor’s degree. Over time, advanced degree holders have been increasing average earnings and income share at a faster rate than bachelor’s degree holders. Theories of status attainment and social reproduction predict, as attainment of bachelor’s degrees increases, dominant social classes saturate advanced degrees that confer higher benefits, such as professional and doctoral degrees. This study examined changes over time in the relationship between parental education and enrollment in and attainment of advanced degrees using nationally representative data sets. Descriptive and multivariate analyses showed a positive relationship between parental education and advanced degree attainment. In multivariate analysis, parental education was related to the probability of advanced degree attainment when controlling for income, demographics, academic and financial effects, but not when also controlling for educational expectations. The findings provide evidence of enduring social stratification over time between those who attained a bachelor’s degree in the 1960s to the 2000s. Over this period, those whose parents held a doctoral or professional degree increased their concentration in advanced degree holders overall and in doctoral and professional degrees in particular. There was also evidence of stratification at the advanced degree level; those 1993 college graduates whose parents held a master’s degree were no more likely than those whose parents held only a bachelor’s degree to attain advanced degrees. Those whose parents held a professional degree were more likely to attain a professional degree. Study findings call attention to the need for those seeking to promote social mobility to attend to the pathways to advanced degrees for those from lower SES backgrounds. Attention to programs that focus on attainment of doctoral and professional degrees by lower SES background college students should be a priority. Study findings provide a foundation for further research into the role of SES in attainment of advanced degrees and into the nature of different types of advanced degree attainment.

Subject Area

Higher education|Higher Education Administration|Sociology|Educational administration

Recommended Citation

Johnson, R. Marc, "Advanced Degrees and Social Mobility in the United States" (2021). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI28544284.