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How Educational Inequality Develops

June 2006

George Farkas, Department of Sociology and Population Research Institute, Pennsylvania State University

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Academic achievement – the credentials of schooling completed and degrees attained, as well as the skills and capabilities associated with these credentials - is an important determinant of socioeconomic success. Few if any personal characteristics are more strongly and positively related to an individual’s later occupational attainment, employment, earnings, home ownership, health, and other measures of a successful life. In addition, as the U.S. and other national economies have evolved, technological innovation and globalization have advanced, and labor union strength has declined, the economic return to academic achievement has increased. Thus, for example, in inflation-adjusted, 1999 dollars, the average U.S. male high school dropout earned $13.61/hour in 1973, and $9.78/hour in 1999, a decline of 28 percent. By contrast, the earnings of workers with an advanced degree (beyond college) increased by more than 20 percent during this time period (Krueger, 2003: 4). A given educational achievement gap between two individuals leads to a larger earnings gap today than it did in the past. This trend has been particularly disadvantageous for race/ethnic groups such as African-Americans and Latinos, whose academic achievement has historically lagged behind that of whites. At the same time, this trend has benefited Asians, whose academic achievement has equaled and in some areas surpassed that of whites. The great importance of racial/ethnic academic achievement gaps for understanding racial/ethnic earnings gaps is illustrated by the finding that the earnings gap between African-American and white men can be fully explained by a calculation that accounts for, among other variables, the educational credentials (years of schooling completed) and cognitive skills (test score) gaps between these groups. Here, the portion (40%) of the Black-White hourly wage gap accounted for by the cognitive skills gap is four times the size of the 2 portion (10%) accounted for by the credentials gap (Farkas and Vicknair, 1996, Table 1). Thus, the study of racial/ethnic gaps in academic achievement - test scores and credentials - is central to understanding poverty and income differentials across these groups in America today. Approximately fifty years after the Brown decision, forty years after the Coleman Report, and during a period of intense discussion of No Child Left Behind, concern with these gaps is hardly new. What is new is recent evidence on the sources of these disparities in the early lives and school careers of children. This new understanding of the early development of race/ethnic inequalities in educational achievement is the focus of this chapter. I will discuss the theoretical framework and data that have been used to address these issues, the questions that have been asked, and the answers that have emerged. The goal is scientific knowledge leading to programs and policies capable of narrowing the gaps.

Discrimination, Educational Attainment, Race and Ethnicity