Elite people increasingly dominate academia in the United States

First-generation scholars have always been rare. Now they are disappearing.

(John Bulmer/Popperfoto/Getty Images)

To understand the critical issues facing the U.S. economy — runaway inflation, labor shortages, and possibly a looming recession — researchers need to understand human behavior. They need to know how everyday Americans will react when prices at the pump double or shelves empty.

It is therefore somewhat alarming to learn that academia in general – and economics in particular – has quietly become the domain of an island elite, a group likely to have had little exposure to the hardships of vast American middle class.

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In 1970, only 1 in 5 US-born economics doctorate holders had a parent with a graduate degree. Now? Two-thirds of them do, according to a new analysis from the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The trends are similar for other fields (and for foreign-born students), but the economy is unusual.

This partly reflects demographic trends: over the same period, the proportion of parents with college degrees and college-aged children increased by 10 percentage points to 14%, according to our analysis of Census Bureau data. But compared to the typical American, a typical new economist is about five times more likely to have a parent with a graduate degree.

The new analysis comes from Anna Stansbury of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and University of Michigan graduate student Robert Schultz, who got his hands on detailed data on American doctorate holders going back more than 50 years. The data includes detailed information on nearly half a million recipients in the period from 2010 to 2018 alone.

It shows that the elite dominates even more among the top schools which produce around half of all future economics teachers. Among the top 15 programs, 78% of new PhD graduates since 2010 had a parent with a graduate degree, while only 6% are first-generation students.

For a foreigner, the long road to a professorship can seem frustrating and opaque, especially in economics. Doctoral programs tend to require a hidden curriculum of courses in subjects such as mathematics that are not technically required for economics majors. If you learn about economics late in your academic career and don’t have expert guidance, it may already be too late to embark on the PhD path. Similar hidden barriers lurk in the job market and in academic publishing.

University of Southern California economist Robert Metcalfe said the hidden program is just the beginning. Elite social networks determine which economists are accepted into top schools and published in top journals, and it can be difficult for first-generation students like him to break in.

“I’m still catching up. It’s because I come from a background that didn’t know anything about academia,” Metcalfe said, who grew up in South Wales in the UK, where his father worked as a storekeeper at a brewery while his mother stayed home to raise four children. “I got started before I was 40, but I just feel like I’m always behind at the academy.”

At every stage where first-generation college students typically fall through the cracks, Metcalfe was lucky to find working-class mentors who could help him. Among them was John List, an influential University of Chicago economist. List, the son of a secretary and a truck driver in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, helped pioneer the use of real-world economic experiments. He’s advised everyone from White House officials to executives at Uber, Lyft and Walmart, where he currently reigns as chief economist.

“I wouldn’t be an academic economist today,” Metcalfe said, “if high-level role models who shared my working-class background hadn’t helped me navigate and survive in elite academic institutions. such as the University of Oxford and the University of Chicago.”

This summer, Metcalfe and List aim to expand their mentorship with a student workshop called First-gen Research and Mentoring in Economics (FRAME).

Stansbury said she also wondered if courses like Econ 101 might put off students from low-income backgrounds. “I’m also concerned that some of the terminologies used, such as ‘unskilled’ or ‘low ability’ to describe people who work in low-paying jobs or have little formal education, are offensive,” Stansbury said. “And I can see that would be disproportionate for people who come from backgrounds where those words describe family members and friends.”

This study is one of the first to describe academia’s struggles with economic diversity, but its racial diversity issues have been well documented. They are particularly pronounced in economics, which has fewer underrepresented minorities among its PhD graduates (about 6%) than any other major.

Why do elite people dominate academia? A separate analysis suggests a simple answer: when many the rewards of a job are not monetary, that job tends to be done by people for whom money is not a concern.

“Who can work in the kinds of professions you associate with more creative, enjoyable, and fulfilling work? We found that, among people with similar levels of education, people in these jobs disproportionately come from wealthier families,” said Boston College economist Danial Lashkari. “As we shared these results with colleagues, we heard many stories that make us think this finding resonates with many on a personal level.”

In a recent working paper, Lashkari and Corina Boar of New York University used a long-running US survey to calculate the quality of work life enjoyed by professionals in dozens of different jobs based on worker treatment, workload physical, intellectual stimulation and worker autonomy. At the top of the list are professors and other post-secondary educators, curators and librarians, and architects. Drivers, cargo handlers and mail deliverers are downstairs.

The academics then used surveys that follow people across lifetimes and generations to find out whether certain jobs were more or less likely to attract people from affluent backgrounds than people with more humble roots. When they compared the two lists, they found a strong relationship between the nonmonetary benefit of a job and its appeal to children from high-income households.

If a talented student from an affluent background is offered a choice between becoming a curator or a professor or doing a less rewarding job in finance that brings in an extra $25,000 a year, that person will likely turn to a more enjoyable and fulfilling in a museum or a university, says Lashkari. To them, $25,000 more doesn’t mean much. While someone without a privileged background is less likely to pass up a better paying job in finance or law.

Lucie Schmidt was the first in her family to graduate from college. She was also a single mother. Like many in her position, it never occurred to her to study economics: she was interested in poverty, not business and finance. But when she took an economics course to meet a prerequisite, she saw an opportunity.

“If you care about poverty reduction,” Schmidt said, “economics gives you these really great tools to analyze these kinds of policies.”

She is now an economist at Smith College, where she maintains a list of first-generation economists on Twitter. She studies family structure, the social safety net and anti-poverty programs, many of which targeted single mothers.

“Having been on some of these programs at some point gives you a different perspective,” Schmidt said. “There’s a pretty direct connection, I think, between the things that interest me and my personal history.”

The University of Chicago list, which reminded us that “those chosen at birth do not have a monopoly on innovative ideas,” draws a clear line between his formative years and his substantial contributions to the field. The endless weekends he spent driving across the Midwest, handing out baseball cards at trade shows to fund his education, showed him how economic theories could be tested in the real world.

“These experiences gave me unique insights that helped me introduce field experiments in a new way in the early 1990s in economics,” List told us.

“Step back and ask yourself: how many other ideas have we lost to exclusivity? Many future breakthroughs will come from people with backgrounds off the beaten track,” he said. “So it’s not only fair to give everyone a chance, I strongly believe it’s also effective.”

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