American economists Anna Stansbury and Robert Schultz have just published in the latest issue of the journal Economic Perspectives Research article Somewhat annoying. Given their interest in the social origins of economics treatise holders in the United States, they paint a picture of a system that is far more elitist than others, and this has become increasingly clear in recent decades.
Focusing first on the period 2010-2021, they measured the social level of doctoral students by their parents’ highest educational level. The first result: PhD students in economic sciences showed less social diversity. Nearly half (48%) have a parent with a master’s level or higher compared to an average of 43% in other majors.
At this point, we see a real gap but it is not large. However, it turns out that due to their prestige, American economics schools attract a lot of foreign students: 68% of thesis holders in this specialty were not born in the United States.
However, when we narrow the focus on introductions, the gap in social origin widens: 65% come from a family with a parent with a master’s degree or more compared to half on average across all other disciplines. Even 20% of these local doctoral students have at least one parent with a thesis compared to 12% in other disciplines.
Then, taking a historical step back, the authors show that the elitism of American economics has greatly strengthened over the past half-century. In the early 1970s, US-born economics doctoral students had the same social origin as students in other disciplines. During the 1980s and 1990s, economics, mathematics and computer science began to widen the gap, and since the 2000s, environmental sciences have risen above the rest.
Doctoral students in American economics thus became increasingly disconnected from the rest of the population. In 1970, 57% of them came from families in which neither parent had completed higher education, while this was the case for 92% of the total population. Then the level of diploma rose overall but more rapidly among economics students: only 14% of them come from a family whose parents did not have higher education compared to 66% of the total population.
Unsurprisingly, those who have the most successful academic careers and hold positions of influence in economic decisions are those who graduate from the most prestigious universities. A fate reserved for an elite of the elite: in the top 6 universities, for those born in the United States, 80% of thesis holders in economics have at least one parent at master’s level or higher and only 5% come from a university. A family in which the parents did not have higher education.
The gap widens dramatically at the level of thesis winners, but the problem actually begins at the university level. 41% of American economics students have a parent with a master’s degree or higher compared to an average of 29% in other majors. In the top 6 economic universities, 45% of doctoral students come from large private universities with high registration fees, and only 24% from public universities.
Students from less advantaged backgrounds do not have the appropriate networks to navigate and progress in economics studies
At the end of the article, the authors try to explain this uneven peculiarity of economic studies in the United States, but nothing really convincing emerges. The first possibility is that high school students from a lower social level will not be sufficiently prepared to achieve the required level. Or they will be less informed about the possibility of pursuing studies in this specialty. Or again, they either won’t be tempted by vague master’s degrees – especially when they can already earn a good living thanks to a license – or they won’t understand the level of requirements required to go further.
He mentioned two other ways. Students from less advantaged backgrounds do not have the appropriate networks to navigate and progress in economics studies. This will be all the more important because the more these studies are reserved over time for a small elite, the less comfortable students from less advantaged backgrounds will feel and the more they will find themselves socially rejected in this discipline than elsewhere.
Explanations still need to be worked out. But the result is there: in the United States, important positions in the economic sphere are increasingly reserved for a restricted social elite disconnected from the rest of the population.
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