3 November 2023

Black Americans from well-educated families continue to face educational barriers


While racial disparities in education have narrowed in the US, African American individuals from well-educated backgrounds still find it especially difficult to attain the same high level of education as their parents. A new study points to entrenched racial inequalities in parts of American society.

Black female student
Photo: Colourbox

At a first glance, it's a story of success. Over the past three to four generations, both the white and black populations in the US have become much better educated. At the same time, the gap in educational attainment between the two groups has narrowed significantly.

Nonetheless, a recent comprehensive study conducted by Kristian Karlson from the University of Copenhagen offers a more nuanced and less optimistic perspective on this progress through extensive analysis of educational data from 72,000 American parents and children.

On the one hand, the study confirms that racial gaps in educational attainment have generally narrowed (Figure 1 below). Furthermore, it highlights a significant advancement: African American children from less educated family backgrounds are now just as likely as their white counterparts to transcend barriers to upward mobility and attain a level of education that surpasses that of their parents (Figure 2).

On the other hand, children from well-educated families with African American background remain significantly disadvantaged compared to their white peers. On average, they receive less schooling and have a harder time keeping up with their parents' educational attainment (Figure 2).

"Seeing the diminished role of racial background in the educational prospects of children from less educated families marks a significant stride toward equality,” remarks Associate Professor Kristian Karlson of the Department of Sociology.

“Nevertheless, it’s concerning that, on a broader scale, the African American community appears to encounter additional obstacles in sustaining their educational achievements at the highest levels.”

He also points out that the racial education gap at the top of the education ladder has remained largely unchanged over the past 70 years.

"The study therefore shows that racial background still matters in education. Black Americans from well-educated families seem to encounter an invisible barrier. This contradicts a dominant theory in the field, which argues that racial inequality will increasingly give way to class-based inequality. My findings suggest that this theory needs to be revised."

Strong inequality at the top of the education distribution

Since visiting Yale University in 2012, Kristian Karlson has been working on the study, which was recently published in the American Journal of Sociology.

In his article, Karlson demonstrates that around half of white children from the most educated quartile of families successfully maintain their status in the upper 25% of educational achievement. By contrast, this level of educational continuity is achieved by only a third of African American children.

"This gap of 17-18 percentage points is very significant. Especially when you consider that both the shares and the gap have not changed significantly over the 70 years covered by the study," says Karlson.

The study also shows that black men in particular are lagging behind, while women are doing somewhat better. However, both black men and women still fare worse than their white peers. Overall, black Americans from well-educated families have a much harder time maintaining their social position across generations.

Figure 1: Average length of education for Americans (by year of birth)

Figure 1
Americans born around 1980 have significantly more education than previous generations. At the same time, the overall racial education gap has narrowed over the past 70 years. Estimates in Figures 1 and 2 are based on the 1972-2016 US General Social Survey.

Figure 2: Proportions of black and white Americans experiencing upward and downward educational mobility (by year of birth)

Figure 2
The figure shows the proportion of three generations experiencing upward mobility from the bottom of the education distribution or downward mobility from the top. While the black-white gap in upward mobility has disappeared, there is no change among the most educated at the top. Bottom and top are defined as the 25 percent with the least and most education in each birth cohort.

A reflection of economic and social conditions

What are the mechanisms that perpetuate racial disparities among children of well-educated families?

Incorporating additional data, the study highlights that family structure and income are pivotal. Black Americans, on average, see smaller financial gains from education compared to whites. Additionally, children in well-educated black families typically have more siblings and face higher rates of parental divorce.

The study underscores the importance of meaningful progress within the U.S. education system, advocating for the enhancement of equal opportunities across racial and social backgrounds.

Kristian Karlson, Associate Professor

These factors can potentially hinder children’s educational prospects, as limited financial and social resources may need to be distributed among more siblings or might not be sufficient for attaining higher education.

"Simply put: Resources are stretched thinner, placing black families at a disadvantage in providing their children with extensive and costly educational support," explains Kristian Karlson.

"However, that’s only a part of the story. Racial disparities in the U.S. are deeply rooted in longstanding and historical injustices, encompassing issues like segregation and discrimination. Above all, the study underscores the importance of meaningful progress within the U.S. education system, advocating for the enhancement of equal opportunities across racial and social backgrounds."

See the full study ‘Black-White Trends in Intergenerational Educational Mobility: A Positional Analysis’.


Associate Professor Kristian Bernt Karlson
Department of Sociology
Email: kbk@soc.ku.dk 
Telephone: +45 35 32 15 88
Mobile: +45 23 36 92 85

Journalist Søren Bang
Faculty of Social Sciences
Email: sba@samf.ku.dk 
Mobile: +45 29 21 09 73


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