Parents of PhDs in Economics: Their Education

Unsurprisingly, PhD graduates tend to have more highly educated parents. If your parents have some knowledge of how to navigate the tangled forests of academia, as well as the financial resources to help you do it, you are more likely to earn this degree. But what’s surprising, at least to me, is that this link between parental education and a PhD in economics is stronger than in most other fields.

Robert Schultz and Anna Stansbury cite the facts in “Socio-economic diversity
Candidates of Economic Sciences
(March 2022, Peterson Institute for International Economics, WP-22-4). This picture shows some background. The first panel shows, in each field, what proportion of those with PhDs have parents who did not graduate from college. The economy is the lowest. The second panel shows what proportion of those with PhDs in a given field have parents with college degrees but no further education. The economy is almost on top. The third panel shows what proportion of those who have PhDs in a given field have parents who have earned degrees in some field (not necessarily the same one).

One possible problem here is that many doctoral programs at American universities have a large proportion of international students. Perhaps the patterns would be different if we only focused on US-born PhDs? Not really. Here are the same numbers, this time with US-born PhDs only. As you can see, the parents of US-born PhDs in economics are the least likely to have parents without a bachelor’s degree and are the most likely to have parents with an advanced degree. It is true that PhDs in economics do not differ in the average chart from those with only a bachelor’s degree, but it is also true that the differences in this average chart across doctoral fields are relatively small.

This distinctive pattern of PhDs in economics appears to have emerged in the 1980s and 1990s and has remained so ever since. This graph shows that the relationship between a parent’s degree and a person’s likelihood of earning a Ph.D. The general pattern here is interesting: in many fields, PhD students are more likely to have parents with advanced degrees. For many other areas, this pattern has leveled off over the last couple of decades: not so much in economics. There is a broader social problem here, in that higher education has become a way for the wealthy to give their children a socioeconomic boost, a social mechanism passed down from generation to generation that is probably far more important to most families than the size of any family. . purely financial legacy. But my focus here is on the PhD model, where this general model is strongest.

Why does economics stand out from other subject areas in these comparisons? The answer is not obvious. One possibility is that the gap between a bachelor’s degree and a doctoral degree is large in most fields, but perhaps the largest in economics. Most economics programs can achieve high marks in all required subjects and the senior project, but if you have not studied mathematics and statistics beyond these requirements, or your department has not prepared you for graduate school expectations in other ways, you are less likely to be admitted and succeed in the program PhD in Economics. Perhaps parents with advanced degrees are more aware of these issues, and therefore their children entering graduate school in economics are better prepared.

Another theory is that there is something about the way economics is usually presented or taught at the undergraduate level that makes it less attractive to students whose parents do not have advanced degrees.

A related finding by Schultz and Stansbury is to look at the proportion of PhDs in economics who graduated from what they call the Ivy Plus category, i.e. eight Ivy League schools plus Stanford, MIT, the University of Chicago, and Duke University. . The focus here is on U.S. natives with PhDs in all fields. The top panel shows that among US-born PhDs in all fields, those in economics are the least likely to receive a bachelor’s degree from a public institution; the bottom panel shows that among US-born PhDs in all fields, those in economics were far more likely to have received a bachelor’s degree from one of the Ivy Plus institutions. (Moreover, if you include some of the more selective public universities, such as UC Berkeley and Michigan, in the Ivy Plus category, those gaps seem wider.)

I will not try to generalize here about “what all this means in economics.” But the picture is emerging that doctoral programs in economics seem noticeably less open to different parents than in other fields. Moreover, this lack of openness is supported and replicated by admissions committees in doctoral programs in economics.