What do rich kids study in college?

'They have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment'

Students from wealthy families are more likely to take a financial risk and study less "pragmatic" subjects such as arts, English, and history, writes Joe Pinsker for The Atlantic.

An analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data by Cornell University sociologist Kim Weeden found that levels of college students' parental income correlates with majors. Individuals from lower-income households tend to choose "useful" studies—like physics, math, and computer science—while those from the higher end of the socioeconomic scale tend to choose fields such as performing arts, English, and history.

The findings are "consistent with the claim that kids from higher-earning families can afford to choose less vocational or instrumental majors, because they have more of a buffer against the risk of un- or under-employment," Weeden says.

Students from wealthy families are also more likely to be exposed to music, art, and literature throughout their childhoods, leading to an interest once they get to college, she says.

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Research by University of California, Davis economics professor Greg Clark resulted in similar findings. He examined about 15 years of student data from Cambridge University and compared the majors of individuals with "rare, elite" last names—inferring high social status—with those who have more typical English surnames. 

Those with elite last names were more likely to major in English, history, and classics than economics and computer science.

A third analysis by Quoctrung Bui from NPR's Planet Money also supports the conclusion that low-income students enter practical fields. After reviewing National Longitudinal Study and Bureau of Labor Statistics data, Bui found that physicians tended to be from families that earned lower incomes than the families of artists. On average, doctors earned 40% more than their parents did, while artists earned about 35% less.

"It's speculative, but richer students might be going on to take lower-paying jobs because they have the knowledge that their parents' money will arrive eventually," writes Pinsker.

Liberal arts? STEM? It's a 'false dichotomy,' say some college leaders

However, even if individuals earn less than their parents, that does not necessarily mean they have lost their social class, says Dalton Conley, a New York University sociology professor.

"It might seem like there's a lot of social mobility that the offspring of doctors are artists, or what have you, but maybe they traded off occupational autonomy and freedom ... They still have a high education level and they still have wealth," he says (Pinsker, The Atlantic, 7/6).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.


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Ed committee chair: 'It's a myth' that college is unaffordable

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