The postgraduate premium: revisiting trends in social mobility and educational inequalities in Britain and America

Document type
Lindley, Joanne; Machin, Stephen
Sutton Trust
Date of publication
1 February 2013
Education and Skills, Employment
Social welfare
Material type

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This report revisits the debate about why social mobility levels are relatively low in Great Britain and the United States of America compared to other countries. It focuses on three main areas within this debate: the changing role of educational inequalities; the expectation of ever higher levels of education as revealed in increasing numbers of workers holding postgraduate degrees; and potential differences by gender.

Both Britain and the US have shown significant educational upgrading over time. By 2011 in Britain, the proportions of male and female graduates in the workforce converged and are now very similar. This gender convergence occurred earlier in the US (around the mid-1990s), where women workers now have higher levels of education on average than their male counterparts.

As these significant education upgrades have occurred, educational inequalities by family income have risen in both countries through time. This has reduced social mobility as people with the highest education levels increasingly come from richer backgrounds, whilst the relative wages of the more educated have risen.

There has also been an increase in the numbers of postgraduates - those staying on in higher education after obtaining their undergraduate degree. 11 per cent of people in work (aged 26-60) in Britain now hold a postgraduate qualification, up from 4 per cent in 1996.

In the past, employers used to accept O-levels or A-levels for many jobs. More recently, a Bachelor’s degree was expected. Now, graduates seek to distinguish themselves increasingly by acquiring a postgraduate degree. But as the requirements of the labour market have become more demanding, this has exacerbated educational inequalities as workers with postgraduate degrees increasingly come from richer family backgrounds.

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