Summary: May 19, 2017 Discussion

Rebecca Schalkowski & Rebecca Batstone presented “The relevance of socioeconomic background in academia”. Here are their summaries:

Rebecca S.: In my part of this talk I summarized different studies on factors relating to socioeconomic status which affect a child’s chances for academic success starting from the earliest development through the end of high school. These include occupation, income and education, which are all known to affect a child’s school achievements (American Educator Spring 2012, reviewed Sirin, 2005), IQ (Duncan et al, 1994), likelihood to do well in high school (Palardy, 2008) and attend college (Conley, 2001). Differences in household wealth as defined by the above factors have further been associated with affecting reading achievement (Aikens and Barbarin, 2008), math achievement (Chen et al., 1996), working memory (Noble et al., 2005), and the ability to regulate emotions and thought processes (Evans and Rosenbaum, 2008). The reason for families of lower socioeconomic status to suffer these effects as given by Daniel T. Willingham (American Educator, 2012) derive from lower access to opportunities. These opportunities can be classified by the three types of capital a person or family can have or lack: financial (e.g. books, tutors), human (e.g. skills & knowledge through education and experience of adults surrounding children) and social capital (e.g. connections or networks with people who have financial or human capital). This situation causes both lower resources and higher chronic stress to people from lower socioeconomic groups (Klerman, 1991, Conger et al., 1994) which will in turn lead to decreased academic performance, caused by physiological, psychological and economical disadvantages, causing them to drop out of high school up to 5 times more frequently and college (National Center for Education Statistics, 2008; Langhout, Drake, & Rosselli, 2009).

Rebecca B. focused on two recent large-scale studies: the first (Chetty et al. 2017, “Equality of Opportunity Project”) examined the socioeconomic background of students attending elite colleges in the states (spoiler alert: mostly rich kids), and the second (Clauset et al. 2015, Science Advances) examined a major predictor for who ends up landing a faculty position, namely, the prestige of candidate’s alma mater.

The Chetty et al. (2017) dataset comes from a project entitled the “College Mobility Report Cards”, and includes data from over 30 million students born in the US between 1980-1991 who graduated from colleges in the US between 1999-2013. The data compares the student’s income ranking in their early thirties and that of their parents to see whether attending a particular college was associated with the student’s upward mobility (going from a low-income bracket to a higher-income bracket). Two main findings were discussed: first, students attending “Ivy League” colleges (e.g., U. Chicago, Stanford, MIT), are 77 times more likely to come from families in the top 1% income distribution compared to the bottom 20% income distribution, indicating elite colleges are clearly failing at recruiting students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. Second, students from low-income families who attend elite universities receive earnings post-graduation equal to those from higher-income families, meaning that these colleges successfully “level the playing field” when it comes to financial success post-graduation, and also highlights that there is little cost to colleges for admitting students from low-income families. Unfortunately, student access to top colleges from the bottom 10 to 40% income distributions has not changed since 1999-2013, and funding for students to attend these elite colleges has declined 18% nation-wide since 2008, making it even less likely socioeconomic diversity will improve in the near future.

The second dataset (Clauset et al., 2015) consisted of 19,000 tenue-track or tenured faculty from 461 North American departmental or school-level academic units in three disciplines: computer science, business, and history. The goal of this project was to determine the factors that influence faculty hiring. One such factor emerges through “faculty hiring networks” – collective assessments whereby both the candidate being hired and the institution hiring must make a positive assessment of one another’s quality (e.g., based on teaching and research programs). The authors used faculty hiring networks to construct “social prestige” rankings for each institution, whereby institutions that disproportionately succeed in placing faculty and hire candidates from higher-ranked programs are characterized as being more prestigious compared to others. The authors found that across the disciplines examined, there exists a systematic bias in terms of who ends up getting a faculty placement. Only a quarter of the institutions included in the dataset are responsible for producing 71 to 86% of all tenue track faculty, and the size of the placements are not merely reflecting the size of the unit. The authors also found only 9 to 14% of faculty are placed at institutions with a higher prestige ranking than their doctorate, indicating steep prestige hierarchies, whereby less prestigious institutions hire candidates who graduated from more prestigious institutions in order to bolster their own prestige. As a result of this trend, most PhD’s slide down the prestige scale when they actually land a faculty position, and interestingly, women slide further down the scale compared to their male counterparts from the same institutions. Finally, more prestigious institutions also tend to be more central, well connected, and hold a more influential network position, which fosters the free exchange of ideas, and emphasizes the benefit of landing a position in such an institution. Linking back to the first dataset discussed, social inequality present at early academic levels (i.e., during undergrad) may be carried forward and even amplified at later academic stages. Programs that increase representation of students from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds at prestigious institutions are therefore extremely important to buffer against social inequality at latter stages, whereby the merit of a candidate is strongly influenced by the prestige of the university they graduated from.