Income Inequality and Education

Richard Breen, Inkwan Chung

Sociological Science, August 26, 2015
DOI 10.15195/v2.a22


Many commentators have seen the growing gap in earnings and income between those with a college education and those without as a major cause of increasing inequality in the United States and elsewhere. In this article we investigate the extent to which increasing the educational attainment of the US population might ameliorate inequality. We use data from NLSY79 and carry out a three-level decomposition of total inequality into within-person, between-person and between-education parts. We find that the between-education contribution to inequality is small, even when we consider only adjusted inequality that omits the within-person component. We carry out a number of simulations to gauge the likely impact on inequality of changes in the distribution of education and of a narrowing of the differences in average incomes between those with different levels of education. We find that any feasible educational policy is likely to have only a minor impact on income inequality.
Richard Breen:  Nuffield College and Department of Sociology, University of Oxford.   Email:

Inkwan Chung: Department of Sociology, Yale University.  Email:

  • Citation: Breen, Richard, and Inkwan Chung. 2015. “Income Inequality and Education.” Sociological Science 2: 454-477.
  • Received: April 3, 2015.
  • Accepted: April 19, 2015.
  • Editors: Jesper Sørensen, Stephen Morgan
  • DOI: 10.15195/v2.a22

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One Reaction to Income Inequality and Education

  1. Sara Goldrick-Rab September 2, 2015 at 5:41 pm #

    This is an interesting paper and the main conclusion– that educational policies will not ALONE do much to ameliorate income inequality is consistent with common sense– always a good thing.

    But it is really unfortunate that the paper reproduces a common problem in the literature by treating all sub-baccalaureate education the same way– as if an associate degree made the same contribution that a few credits did. A “college degree” and a “bachelor’s degree” should not be equated, and even if we cannot fix our datasets, we should fix our labels.

    In addition, I think the assumption that the college premium will decline if the fraction of people attaining college rises is questionable, especially in light of evidence of heterogeneous returns to college.

    Finally, the magnitude of the shifts cast as likely from “feasible” educational policies seem rather conservative. It would have been nice to see at least one specification that acknowledged that more change is possible under better political and economic circumstances– which indeed can come about.

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