Educational Inequality Essay

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Educational attainment is affected by effort and ability which, in turn, are affected by the characteristics of students’ families of origin. Students raised by educated parents are more likely to exhibit higher levels of scholastic ability and motivation than those raised by less educated parents. It has been argued (Bourdieu et al. 1977) that children raised in the privileged social strata internalize the values of the dominant culture effortlessly and enjoy an advantage in the educational attainment process. Recent studies show that the main component of cultural capital that affects educational achievement is exposure to books and reading. Studies have also shown that children raised in small families benefit from a larger share of the family’s resources, including parental attention which, in turn, enhances their cognitive development and educational attainment. In some societies, nuclear families are embedded in extended families in supportive communities whose assistance mitigates the negative effects of large sibships. Educational attainment is also affected by the social cohesion of families and communities. Sociologists refer to social cohesion as social capital. Children’s educational attainment is also affected by their family’s income because high-income families can afford the costs of education. Moreover, children raised in poverty are less likely to develop the cognitive skills necessary for subsequent educational success.

Most of the explained variance in students’ educational achievements is due to individual and family characteristics of the kind discussed above. However, some variance is also explained by characteristics of the schools that students attend. Students benefit from attending schools that are attended by peers from privileged social origin. In addition, many educational systems place students into distinct curricular tracks. The most common distinction is between the tracks that prepare students for higher education, and tracks that prepare them for immediate entry into the labor force. Students from less privileged strata are more likely to attend the latter tracks, which restricts subsequent educational attainment. Thus, tracking transmits inequality between generations.

Historically, when the rates of labor-force participation by women were low, daughters were expected to function primarily in the private sphere: marry, bear children, and perform housework, activities not deemed to require an education above the very basic levels. More recently, women’s educational levels have caught up and, in some countries,¬† surpassed¬† those of men. However, women are still more likely than men to attend lower-tier institutions such as two-year or less prestigious colleges and are less likely to study the exact sciences and engineering.


  1. Bourdieu, P., Passeron, J.-C., & Nice, R. (1977) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture. Sage, London.
  2. Bradley, K. (2000) The incorporation of women higher education: paradoxical outcomes.? Sociology of Education 73: 1-18.

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