Social Stratification Via Advanced Degrees: Who Earns Them, Who They Marry, And How They Invest In Children

Yun Cha, University of Pennsylvania


Advanced degrees holders are becoming increasingly commonplace in American society, as well as at the top of the socioeconomic hierarchy in the United States. Despite this, most sociological research to this day tends to group advanced degrees together with Bachelor’s degrees, which limits our understanding of the role these credentials play in processes of social stratification and social reproduction. This dissertation aims to address this critical gap in the literature by asking three research questions formulated and organized based on the life course perspective. First, who earns these degrees, particularly in terms of parental backgrounds? Second, who do advanced degree holders marry with regards to spousal education? Lastly, how do their time and monetary investments in children differ from that of their less educated peers? To answer my respective research questions, I utilize three sets of nationally representative data sources, ranging from a survey of college graduates (2003-19 NSCG) and demographic surveys (1999 & 2000 Censuses, 2000-18 ACS, 1992-2018 CPS) to time diaries (2003-18 ATUS) and expenditure surveys (1996-2019 CEX). I find evidence of persistent parental education effects on college graduates’ advanced degree attainment across birth cohorts for male college graduates, and emerging effects across cohorts for females. I also uncover patterns of intergenerational reproduction of advanced degrees, i.e. individuals replicating their parents’ specific advanced degree types. In terms of family formation, advanced degree holders, specifically those holding professional and doctoral credentials, tend to find partners with equivalent pedigree. In terms of parenting behavior, they spend increasingly similar amounts of time on developmental childcare as their less educated peers today but are investing more financial resources. Taken together, results from the three chapters highlight the critical role of advanced degrees in the reproduction of household level social inequality, in which status and capital are increasingly concentrated in the most elite American families.