Education is changing, but inequality is not

As education expands, inequality of opportunity stubbornly persists, according to latest research.

Many people imagine that an easy way to make educational opportunities fairer for everyone is to expand the number of available places in schools, colleges and universities. The policy sounds like an uncontroversial ”win-win”for all. Disadvantaged students should gain access without taking places usually enjoyed by the privileged, so the system becomes fairer. Across the western world, for example, the recent massive growth in higher education is often defended on this basis. Many take comfort in thinking that educational expansion has reduced inequality of educational opportunity between social classes.

Sadly, these hopes have proved to be groundless. As the French say: “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Indeed, far from equalizing opportunity, expansion can actually increase inequality. That’s not just a quirky outcome in a single country. It’s true pretty much everywhere. In a recent paper with my colleague Eyal Bar Haim, I analysed what happened across 24 European countries to children who were born between the 1950s and the 1970s. On average (across the 24 countries), educational expansion failed to reduce inequality of educational opportunity.

What explains this strange paradox? First, let’s get one point absolutely straight. Usually, when the capacity of universities increases, access for students from poorer communities does indeed improve. However, the biggest beneficiaries are groups whose children are geared up for higher education – the affluent classes. They are likely to have the financial resources to pay tuition fees and other costs, as well as to forgo employment for education. They are also better endowed with the cultural resources that help a student to do well, such as educated parents who can help children with schoolwork and guide them through the educational maze. Educated parents can also serve as role models who shape children’s ambitions and motivations.

Educationally, it is as if everyone is climbing a down escalator, but the poorer classes can never climb fast enough to catch up with the affluent.

There is one important exception to this rule. Once the affluent classes have all the education they could possibly want – be it primary, secondary or higher education – then the poorer classes at last can expect to get a bigger slice of the pie. But, as the well-off reach what Raftery and Hout call their “saturation” point, there is a cruel twist to the story. The pie begins to taste a little stale. Everyone is getting a fairer share, but employers, for example, become less impressed. Expansion of one education level to the point where everyone gains good access results in its devaluation. So, for example, once everyone gained primary education, it no longer offered much advantage in the job market. The same is increasingly becoming true of secondary education in developed countries and may eventually apply also to higher education. It’s as if everyone is climbing a down escalator, but the poorer classes can never climb fast enough to catch up with the affluent. Despite all the activity and movement, class stratification in education remains largely unchanged.

One further development, coinciding with educational expansion, also conspires against fairness. The growth of higher education is often associated with an increasing distinction between upper-tier and lower-tier programs and institutions. These days, many people can gain admission into an American two-year college, but very few are selected for Harvard. Prestigious universities maintain their place in the educational market by enhancing their distinction. So they put in place more stringent selection procedures for admissions. The affluent are more likely to meet these criteria because, as I’ve said, they have the resources to do so. Meanwhile, less-prestigious institutions have an economic interest in attracting as many students as possible, so they keep their selection criteria to a minimum. Typically, the two tiers pull away from each other. Employers recognise the difference, selecting and rewarding graduates accordingly.

hat, then, is an effective method for reducing inequality in educational opportunity? We should recognise that inequality of educational opportunity is primarily a reflection of economic and cultural inequalities between families in the different social classes. We cannot tackle the problem without taking measures to reduce class inequalities in economic and cultural resources.

Policy Implications

Educational policy needs to link across to measures that reduce class inequalities in economic and cultural resources.

Yossi Shavit

Yossi Shavit

Weinberg Professor in Sociology of Stratification and Inequality at Tel Aviv University, Israel. He is also Director of the Educational Policy Program at the Taub Center for Social and Economic Policy in Israel and recent President of the Israeli Sociological Society

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Original research and references

  1. Yossi Shavit Stratification in Higher Education: A Comparative Perspective Stanford University Press, 2007