A Century of Educational Inequality in the United States

with Michelle Jackson

The "income inequality hypothesis" holds that rising income inequality affects the distribution of a wide range of social and economic outcomes. Although it is often alleged that rising income inequality will increase the advantages of the well-off in the competition for college, some researchers have provided descriptive evidence at odds with the income inequality hypothesis. In this paper, we track long-term trends in family income inequalities in college enrollment and completion ("collegiate inequalities") using all available nationally representative datasets for cohorts born between 1908 and 1995. We show that the trends in collegiate inequalities moved in lockstep with the trend in income inequality over the past century. There is one exception to this general finding: For cohorts at risk for serving in the Vietnam War, collegiate inequalities were high, while income inequality was low. During this period, inequality in college enrollment and completion was significantly higher for men than for women, suggesting a bona fide "Vietnam War" effect. Aside from this singular confounding event, a century of evidence establishes a strong association between income and collegiate inequality, providing support for the view that rising income inequality is fundamentally changing the distribution of life chances.