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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Foundational Inequality—Race Differences in Equal Opportunity in the United States

This project focuses on race/ethnicity heterogeneity in intergenerational education mobility to better understand education disparities. The United States has a history of racial and ethnic inequalities in education and recent research further uncovers vast differences in economic opportunities by race/ethnicity. Non-Hispanic Black and Native American/Alaska Native children in particular face the lowest levels of upward economic mobility in the United States.

Education is fundamental to health and socioeconomic status throughout the lifecourse and understanding these disparities can help inform socioeconomic inequality more broadly.

This project brings an intergenerational mobility lens to the study of education – conceptualizing educational attainment through complementary processes of upward and downward education mobility. Using Add Health – a nationally representative sample of approximately 14,000 parent-child pairs from the 1994-2001 high school graduating classes –  the team will first estimate race/ethnicity differences in upward education mobility (i.e., the portion of children transitioning to college, graduating college or earning a graduate degree) for the sample of children whose parents have a high school degree or less. Second, they will estimate race/ethnicity variation in downward education mobility (i.e., the portion of children who do not go to college or do not complete a college degree) for the sample of children whose parents have a college degree or more. Preliminary data suggests both these processes contribute to observed disparities in educational attainment. The study further investigates correlates of these patterns – focusing on criminal justice, mental health, and health insurance – to inform policy and future research.


Jason Fletcher, professor in the La Follette School of Public Affairs


Eric Grodsky, professor of sociology


Katie Jajtner, assistant scientist for the Center for Demography of Health and Aging