As a first-generation college student raised in poverty, I entered graduate school highly interested in the role of educational attainment in intergenerational income and social mobility. In work co-authored with my advisor, Dr. Deirdre Bloome, and published in the American Sociological Review, we ask: Why did intergenerational mobility change so little when we know education expanded among children from low income families? We found that intergenerational mobility declined slightly due to growing inequality among who attends college among low- and high-income parents. However, two countervailing trends offset this decline. First, higher education expansion increases mobility, because the likelihood that low-income children will become high-income adults increases with college completion. Second, within educational groups, parental income became less predictive of adult income. These findings demonstrate the continued importance of postsecondary education’s role in improving low-income children’s adult outcomes and the need to improve these children’s college completion. Our paper received the 2020 James Coleman Award for Outstanding Article from the ASA Section on Sociology of Education.
In a second collaboration, we reveal changes in the relationship between student loans, parental income, and intergenerational income and wealth persistence within racial/ethnic groups. We find that although student loans increase low-income children’s upward income mobility, high-income children are much more likely to use loans. Consequently, across all racial groups, loans contribute to the reproduction of income equalities across generations. However, across cohorts, loans did not increase intergenerational reproduction, because the payoff to loans weakened over time. Because high-income children increased their loan exposure more than low-income children, this weakening maintained existing income inequalities instead of expanding them.