Educational attainment refers to the highest level of formal education completed by the members of a population. Because national systems of education differ greatly from one another, the measurement of educational attainment is typically restricted to education completed in the country where the education was received (Siegel & Swanson 2004: 220), although researchers have developed various metrics to translate levels of completed schooling across countries (Kerckhoff & Dylan 1999). Educational attainment is sometimes recorded as the number of years of schooling that individuals have completed, but is more often measured as the highest grade or highest level completed. The distinction between years of schooling and highest level completed is particularly important in highly schooled and highly economically developed societies in which primary and secondary schooling are virtually universal. Moreover, in highly economically developed societies distinctions at the upper levels of the educational distribution are of more social consequence than are distinctions expressed simply in years of schooling.
Educational attainment is a measure of the stock of education in a population (Duncan 1968). It is useful to distinguish educational attainment from various measures of the flow of education through a population. The most common measures of flow are school enrollment and educational progression. Educational attainment also differs from educational achievement, which pertains to various kinds of cognitive and analytic skills acquired in school, and literacy, a more judgmental measure of the distribution through a population of proficiency in reading and writing.
A difficulty in measuring educational attainment is that there is no fixed age at which individuals permanently sever their participation in formal schooling. The inclusion of individuals who have not yet completed their education in the calculation of the educational attainment of a population systematically underestimates the overall level of educational attainment. Because of this, the measurement of educational attainment must specify a lower age boundary in order to include only those who are most likely to have completed their education. Age 25 is a quite standard cut off for this purpose, but even this definition can become problematic as increasing shares of the population continue their education later in the life course and as educational reentry becomes more common.
The US Census Bureau began to measure educational attainment in the 1940 census by asking about the highest grade of schooling that the respondent had attended and completed. It maintained that practice through the 1980 census. Because this conceptualization of educational attainment failed to provide data on the degrees earned by respondents to the census (in particular, post-secondary degrees), in 1990 the Bureau began to ask about the highest level of education completed. This change from years of education to levels of education had important implications for charting historical trends in the educational attainment of the population. Specifically, it is no longer possible to use census data to calculate the mean and the median number of years of completed schooling in the population. Demographers generally regard this as an acceptable tradeoff for the greater precision and timeliness afforded by the new measurement procedure (Kominski & Siegel 1993).
The US Census Bureau publishes an annual report on the educational attainment of the population using data collected in the Current Population Survey. This administration of the CPS was once known as the Annual Demographic Survey, or more commonly the March Supplement. It is now entitled the Annual Social and Economic Supplement (ASEC).
The educational attainment of the American population has risen steadily since the mid nineteenth century. This upward trend was especially rapid in the twentieth century. The US attained virtually universal primary education before the end of the 1800s, near universal secondary education a half century later, and mass higher education not long after that (Walters 2000). The story is not simply one of uninterrupted growth in educational attainment. The trend line has shown some fluctuations, not all sociodemographic groups have participated equally in the growth of attainments, and there are recently signs of decelerating or even reversed growth. Still, the enormous growth of the educational attainment of the American population has been of unquestioned social, cultural, and political economic significance (Goldin 1998).
The US has historically been a world leader in the mass provision of opportunities for educational attainment, but the growth of educational attainment has been a worldwide phenome non. This growth has often been rapid and dramatic. An important series of publications by Meyer and his colleagues have characterized the global expansion of formal education as ”the world educational revolution” (Meyer et al. 1977).
Analysts of social stratification have regularly regarded educational attainment as pivotal to modern systems of social stratification. As conceptualized in Blau and Duncan’s classic The American Occupational Structure (1967), opportunities for educational attainment are unequally allocated across several fundamental socioeconomic dimensions. Varying levels and types of educational attainment are in turn crucial in allocating people into unequally rewarded positions in socioeconomic hierarchies.
Key to this simple model of social stratification is the distinction between ascription and achievement. Ascription (or ascribed status) refers to individual and aggregate level characteristics over which the individual has no control. Many of these have been hypothesized and empirically demonstrated to influence educational attainment. These include such factors as race, socioeconomic background, and sex. In contrast, achievement (or achieved status) includes those factors that are more under the control of the individual, such as effort, motivation, or ambition. These too have been shown to have significant impacts on educational attainment.
In the US, the relative importance of different ascribed characteristics has changed over time. For many years, girls and women received significantly less educational attainment than did boys and men. More recently, however, American females are receiving higher levels of educational attainment than are males at all but the very highest levels of the educational system. In many cases, such as many professional post-secondary programs leading to remunerative careers, even these barriers are beginning to fall. The transformation of female educational disadvantage into female advantage is evident in many other countries as well.
The gap in educational attainment between white Americans and African Americans, which was once extremely large, has narrowed significantly. On some measures of educational attainment African Americans have even reached relative equality with the white population. Adducing many of the same social and historical factors that contributed to the decline in the educational gap between males and females, Gamoran (2001) anticipates that the racial gap in educational attainment too will continue to decline. At the same time, some Asian American groups have among the highest levels of educational attainment in the nation, while the gap in educational attainment between many Hispanic and Latino populations and the majority population has narrowed more slowly.
On the other hand, the role of socioeconomic status or class (including such indicators as parental education levels, neighborhood poverty, parental occupational status, and family income) as a determinant of educational attainment has shown little sign of weakening over time and considerable evidence of persistence. The ability of researchers to understand the critical role of socioeconomic background as a determinant of educational attainment was greatly enhanced with the introduction and elaboration of the influential ”transition model” of school continuation decisions developed by Mare (1980, 1995). This model drew attention to the continuing importance of social class at transitions from one level of the educational system to another, processes that were often overlooked under earlier linear conceptualizations of the determinants of educational attainment.
Not all of the factors that have been demonstrated to lead to variations in educational attainment are straightforward measures of ascription or achievement. Many researchers have assessed the role of cultural capital and social capital as important determinants of educational attainment (Coleman 1988). Cultural capital refers to culturally valued resources and dispositions that are held disproportionately by the more highly educated. Cultural capital need not reflect job skills or productive capacity in any significant way, but can nonetheless lead to enhanced life chances because of its association with the culture of privileged and elite classes. By social capital, analysts draw attention to how the placement of individuals in supportive social networks can provide educational advantages beyond those offered by an individual’s own skills and talents.
While educational attainment is itself an unequally distributed and scarce social good, in a similar way the possession of educational credentials is a principal means by which status, prestige, and other aspects of life chances are distributed in modern societies. Higher levels of educational attainment are statistically associated with all manner of positive social outcomes. Relative to less educated individuals, more highly educated people have greater access to high paying and prestigious work with which they are more satisfied. They are generally in better health and display more healthy behaviors. Further, more educated people exhibit higher levels of community and civic participation. These findings should be interpreted with care. In part, the benefits of educational attainment are due to the socializing effects of education itself, in part they are due to the greater access to economic resources facilitated by educational attainment, and in part they arise from selection effects into advanced levels of education.
These generalizations about the salutary benefits of educational attainment are true at the aggregate levels of states, regions, and nations, as well as the individual level (Buchmann & Hannum 2001). In comparison with less educated nations, more educated nations are more economically prosperous, healthier, and politically open. Once again, questions of cause and effect need to be carefully considered.
- Blau, P. & Duncan, O. D. (1967) The American Occupational Structure. Wiley, New York.
- Buchmann, C. & Hannum, E. (2001) Education and Stratification in Developing Countries: A Review of Theories and Research. Annual Review of Sociology 27: 77-102.
- Coleman, J. S. (1988) Social Capital in the Creation of Human Capital. American Journal of Sociology 94: S95-120.
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- Gamoran, A. (2001) American Schooling and Educational Inequality: A Forecast for the 21st Century. Sociology of Education extra issue: 135-53.
- Goldin, C. (1998) America’s Graduation from High School: The Evolution and Spread of Secondary Schooling in the Twentieth Century. Journal of Economic History 58: 345-74.
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- Meyer, J. W., Ramirez, F. O., Rubinson, R., & Boli-Bennett, J. (1977) The World Educational Revolution, 1950 1970. Sociology of Education 50: 242-58.
- Siegel, J. S. & Swanson, D. A. (2004) The Methods and Materials of Demography, 2nd edn. Elsevier, Amsterdam.
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