How does family income relate to field of graduate study?
August 9, 2008 12:34 AM   Subscribe

Who can afford to study philosophy? How does family income relate to field of graduate study? How does family income relate to field of graduate study? My husband and I were discussing who can afford to study philosophy. Even though many graduate programs are fully funded, we were wondering what the representation of students from low and moderate income families is in different fields. We both guessed that education would be the most econimically democratic field of study, but I am curious to see the statistical breakdown of the average family income of matriculants to different graduate and professional programs.
posted by abirae to Education (28 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
If you've got the time, there's an excellent thesis by a friend of mine on this very topic in regards to undergraduate education: She went straight from this to a Harvard phD, so I'm banking that it's worth your time.
posted by damsorrow at 1:06 AM on August 9, 2008

This PDF might be useful social class and ug degree study in the UK although on a skim it only seems to break things down into numerical, non-numerical and law/medicine, and does not seem to show a significant effect.

As someone who used to teach a large elective module (computing for non-computing students), I can let you have some informal stereotypes... and I have to say that the largest proportion of Posh Boys came from Classsics, and the Posh Girls were doing Psychology or Broadcast Journalism. (The most interesting students were doing Maths, Chinese or Philosophy, and the dimmest were doing Textiles, but that's not the question you asked.) I didn't notice any one subject with a particular preponderance of working class entrants.

As an aside, and I realise that Philosophy is probably just an example subject, here's an article on the fact that philosophy graduates are actually rather employable. The analytical skills you get from learning how to argue properly are in demand, it would seem.
posted by handee at 1:37 AM on August 9, 2008

For grad school generally, I think that it generally skews toward people from a higher SES. A few of us grad students from more working class backgrounds frequently discuss how graduate school wasn't discussed when we were kids, our parents didn't know about things like GRE, doing RA as undergrads, picking the right major/classes, doing those summer programs/conferences that prep one for grad school and that it isn't shocking when folks with parents with advanced degrees have a smoother transition into grad school generally.

Same deal once you're in... lower SES parents don't understand why you're still in school or what you're doing in there.

Also with the GRE being such a vocab-based exam, you could argue that kids from a higher SES have an advantage already on the exam. Same deal with the ability to take prep classes.

Maybe you could stretch it further that high SES kids went to undergrad universities that encouraged them to do grad school more and are highlighted as better feeders for grad programs.

Just my 2 cents.
posted by k8t at 3:14 AM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

In addition to the reasons cited by k8t, I suspect the high opportunity costs of Ph.D. programs keep them largely populated with the fairly well-off. In computer science (the field I'm familiar with), this opportunity cost can be a lifetime thing: you choose low-paying research jobs in college rather than high-paying internships, you earn a low stipend in grad school rather than a software engineer's comfortable salary, and then actually having a Ph.D. limits your job options unless you can prove yourself as an engineer...which you could've done ten years prior as an intern.

(Full disclosure: this line of reasoning is why I left grad school.)
posted by backupjesus at 4:45 AM on August 9, 2008

Off the top of my head, other candidates for most-economically-democratic-field-of-graduate-study: social work, library science.
posted by box at 4:47 AM on August 9, 2008

IAPPHDS (I am a philosophy pdh student), and I can provide anecdotal answers to your question. I am a student in a top 5 philosophy phd program, and from my experience, the following things are true:

It is certainly true that it's easier for people who are well-off to survive in philosophy phd programs since they have the crutches they need to get in. But, all top programs (at least Leiter top-10) offer full funding to EVERY student in their program. This is important as it allows students to be a relatively equal footing once they are in the program (as almost all students are independent of their parents by this time). Luckily, "full funding" is definitely enough to survive. Wealthy people usually still have more cushioning, such as coming in to the program with a car, but usually the economic statuses of grad students in similar programs quickly evens out. Personally, I had an offer of 25K per year from Stanford for 5 years (I did not accept this offer). Likewise, in my particular case, my current yearly stipend exceeds the yearly agi of my family. My stipend also covers complete tuition coverage and health insurance (damn the usa for requiring this!). On the other hand, there are some programs that do not offer sufficient means, without embarrassing the program, I can say that a top 30 program offered me about 11K and required constant teaching (compare to 1.7 years teaching at Stanford/3 years in my program). So, yea ... my experience tells me that once somebody has made it into a PhD program (well, a top program at least), that person is fine financially.

On the other hand, my experience has shown me that it's nearly impossible for poor people to end up in these programs. I think poor people are discouraged from going into academia in two respects: 1) Along the lines of what k8t and backupjesus say, it is difficult for lower class undergrads to realize that academia is a real option, know anything about what is required, and overcome the opportunity costs (for instance, I am familiar with a case of a Phil PhD student who had an offer from the industry that would increase his family's total income 10 times!). 2) Prima facie, it seems more difficult for lower income families to place their students in top undergraduate programs where they'll be exposed to academic role models. I believe that if I weren't so lucky as to be offered a very generous scholarship from a top 5 undergrad university, there's no way I'd be in academia now.

Anyway, I could go on for a while, so if you'd like more anecdotal evidence, feel free to PM me.
posted by singerdj at 5:54 AM on August 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

No facts, but my experience is in line with K8t and backupjesus: graduate school skews high. Which is not to say that it's packed full of toffs, aristos and the moneyed, but more that the working class is largely just missing. I think it's not to do with any one thing but more a host of factors that all point in the same direction. Taking the classifications "working class" and "rich" as broad simplifications:

* As k8t said, the mere existence of graduate school (and the possibility of it being a legitimate way to spend your time and money) may be hidden from a lot of working class students.

* If a student is distracted by money problems, they'll have a much harder time, have to work, and have less time to study both before and during grad school, leading to a self-selection away from grad school. This effect will be stronger in the case of unfunded students, but even fully funded students can feel the effect - while your classmates are going out boozing and having fun, running up debts they know they can pay off later, you know that you have to get a job right after graduation.

* On that point, no safety net means students tend towards safer more predictable studies, and away from the more theoretical.

* Rich families tend to be more tolerant about their children's whims and possibly indulgent career paths: doing a course just because they find it interesting or "it would be a good experience". Unsurprising, because they can afford to.

To partly argue against myself, I've personally known two Philosophy PhDs, neither who came from from particularly rich families. But they both worked started their doctorates later than usual and worked throughout.
posted by outlier at 6:13 AM on August 9, 2008

On the other hand, my experience has shown me that it's nearly impossible for poor people to end up in these programs.

On the flip side of the coin, my experience in a well-ranked philosophy grad program suggested that the rich rarely end up in these programs, either. Almost across the board, my philosophy grad school classmates were from middle-middle-class backgrounds. My theory was that children of upper-middle class families are taught to go into fields that are more remunerative than academic philosophy -- business, law, banking, etc.

Perhaps the middle-middle class children see that philosophy will allow them to have a middle class lifestyle that their parents enjoyed. The upper-middle class see that it won't support the lifestyle their parents enjoyed.
posted by jayder at 6:44 AM on August 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

Who can afford to study philosophy?

In general, any good PhD program (including philosophy) will offer full funding to all students. Even medium programs probably can get TAships to just about everyone. So economic class is probably only a predictor insofar as it is a predictor of education and opportunities prior to grad school (which it is). So the answer to this is that anyone who gets in to a decent program can afford to study philosophy.
posted by advil at 6:45 AM on August 9, 2008

In general, any good PhD program (including philosophy) will offer full funding to all students

"Full funding" is a relative term. Every grad student I've known was unable (or just barely able) to make ends meet with just their stipend. The shortfall was made up with student loans, savings, or money from mom and dad (which, as others have pointed out, are safety nets those from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds will not have).
posted by AV at 6:52 AM on August 9, 2008

Former philosophy graduate student here with more anecdotal evidence. Everyone in my program had either a fellowship or TA position. I was used to living cheaply, and left grad school with more money in my pocket than when I began and no debt. My family was low-to-middle middle class (like John Edwards, I was the son of a mill worker), and I don't recall any students with backgrounds "lower" than mine.

I do recall that other students in the program complained more about their stipends than I did, and that some even talked of unionizing. I had the impression that the rabble-rousers were used to a higher standard of living than I was, and that their fathers had never seen the inside of a mill.
posted by Knappster at 7:08 AM on August 9, 2008

I don't know what you mean by "economically democratic," but I would bet that a strong contender for lowest family income is graduate religious education. Missionary kids tend not to have posh backgrounds.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:42 AM on August 9, 2008

Just to add some statistical data to place anecdotal evidence in context: Although the Survey of Earned Doctorates (USA) does not specify philosophy per se, it is a goldmine of information about who is earning doctoral degrees in the US. The survey does not collect data on parental income, but it does collect data on parents' highest educational attainment. The 2005 SED notes that among humanities doctoral recipients, 24.7% of fathers and 29.9% of mothers had a high school degree or less; 42.4% of fathers and 27.5% of mothers had a graduate degree. The report (again, 2005) notes that since 1975 the percentage of doctoral recipients whose parents had a high school education or less has been declining, while the percentage whose parents had an advanced degree has been rising.

The American Historical Association's recent report on graduate education in the 21st century noted as an area of concern that fewer first-generation college students were entering history graduate programs, and the reports' authors speculate that the uncertainty of employment is a factor.

The 2005 SED also confirms abirae's hunch that education has the widest range of socioeconomic backgrounds; among recipients of Ed.D. degrees, 41.7% of fathers and 47.1% of mothers had no college experience.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:03 AM on August 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Social work is NOT as equal-opportunity as you might think because of the general need for a car, time to do unpaid internships or field work, etc.

Education, same thing, but with unpaid student teaching.
posted by sondrialiac at 10:25 AM on August 9, 2008

(I am referring to masters programs, by the way, and obviously the data is anecdotal)
posted by sondrialiac at 10:26 AM on August 9, 2008

In my experience the vast majority of PhDs both in the sciences and humanities come from Middle-Class backgrounds, mostly Middle-Middle Class. Of course that doesn't prove anything, but there it is.
posted by ob at 1:55 PM on August 9, 2008

Every grad student I've known was unable (or just barely able) to make ends meet with just their stipend.

Obviously depends on where you are, both in terms of what the school's standard stipend is, and what the cost of living is. Here in Durham, lots of grad students are buying houses and new cars and intentionally having children, and I can't think of anybody who seems to be really struggling.

As a current science grad student, I will agree that Middle-Middle Class background is the norm. Plenty of children of academics and other professionals. A surprising number of military brats. People who are from less typical professional backgrounds, it's frequently because their parents chose to go back and farm or run the family store after graduating from college, so in those cases their parents may understand better than the rest of us what it is to give up. I don't know a huge cross-section of students outside of the sciences, but this is my overall sense.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:39 PM on August 9, 2008

Wow, I didn't finish that sentence and it looks really offensive when it was not meant to be at all. People who are from less typical professional backgrounds, it's frequently because their parents chose to go back and farm or run the family store after graduating from college, so in those cases their parents may understand better than the rest of us what it is to give up "aspirations of Upper Middle Class" in order to do something we think is worthwhile.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:41 PM on August 9, 2008

Every grad student I've known was unable (or just barely able) to make ends meet with just their stipend.

Yeah this is totally the opposite to my experience, but as hydropsyche says, it totally depends on where you are...
posted by ob at 4:41 PM on August 9, 2008

It sounds from your question that you think that philosophy students tend to be wealthier than other students because they couldn't afford to get by if they weren't already wealthy. I don't think this is true. I'm also a philosophy grad student. The fellowship and stipend money is enough for me to comfortably live on, though I don't manage to accrue savings (it's a paycheck-to-paycheck life for me). Schools differ pretty drastically in terms of how much they offer. When I was shopping around for grad schools a few years ago, I remember noticing and hearing that the top three schools all offered quite a bit more than their nearest competitors. I don't want to mention specific numbers, seeing as I don't remember them exactly and don't want to spread misinformation, but I can say that at top schools the yearly stipend is about 21K +/- 5K a year. This number increases every year. Also, a number of people I know have external fellowships like the Javits, which increases their yearly pay to over 30K. It's much more than enough to live on. Of course, lower-ranked schools will offer much less, to the tune of 10K and such. When that's the stipend being offered, it's pretty common for people to take out loans. In any case: you don't need to come from a rich background in order to be a grad student.

I guess it's correct to say that the median grad student comes from a middle-middle class background, and maybe even the mode, but it's hard to tell. People very reasonably tend not to discuss these things. But from what I do know, there are still a lot of students from disparate economic backgrounds floating about. Some people are rather well off, and there are a few from trailer park backgrounds. I suspect that different schools might have different demographics. I don't know anyone in philosophy who is either ultrarich or utterly impoverished. Some grad students have families with kids. I have no idea how they manage, and it's not my place to ask.

If anything, I'd guess that philosophy students skew toward the poor. Doing a philosophy degree is a very strange career path to follow in terms of expected utility. Students sacrifice a lot of money in their late twenties and their thirties for a high-risk shot at later earning longterm job security, pretty good late-career income, and the opportunity to turn a passion into a life project. Frankly, the decision looks terrible on paper. You really need to not be able to imagine doing anything else in order for it to be worth it. The more likely someone is to value money, the less likely they are to follow a career in philosophy. I'm guessing that this selects against a lot of people from wealthy backgrounds.

One really common set-up is for a grad student to be married to or be living with a partner who brings home the bacon through some other job. This is anecdotal, bu when I was a prospective grad student, I got to see a whole bunch of different departments and incoming students and I was struck by the number of philosophy-student/young-lawyer pairs. It was really astounding. I must have met at least ten, and I already knew a few others. And it always, always was the case that the grad student was male and the lawyer was female. It was a kind of a role reversal of traditional 1960's household: the wife was the breadwinner. My diagnosis at the time was that couples would get together in undergrad doing general humanities degrees, and when it came time to decide what to do doing after graduation, they would split up the life paths - one person went to get money, the other person got to do what they loved. Subtle and unknown forces (possibly unrecognized systemic sexism) always pushed the male into taking the grad student path. That's my guess, but I don't know how right I am about it.
posted by painquale at 5:36 PM on August 9, 2008

Thanks to everyone who has posted their insights. I didn't mean to rag on students of philosophy. I chose it as an example because it is an field that is often the punch-line to jokes about academia. I am a little ashamed that I did assume there would be an under-representation of students from working class background in philosophy. I had assumed that many people with substantial student loans debt would instead opt for professional school or a high paying job in industry where they could pay back their loans more quickly. Of course, money isn't the only factor driving people's life choices and that's why I was curious to see data on the cumulative choices Americans are making.
posted by abirae at 7:13 PM on August 9, 2008

We're not all americans, so don't go jumping to geographical conclusions...
posted by handee at 3:07 AM on August 10, 2008

At my (private, elite) university, we fully fund all PhD students for at least five and usually six or even seven years, at exactly the same level regardless of need.

PhD programs select for people who did well in college, and there is a bias toward people who went to better (or better known colleges). These two facts tend to skew the demography toward higher class levels. But in my program, at least, we've admitted plenty of people who came from lower class backgrounds too.

The main variables, alas, are established much earlier than college. Families that encourage their kids to read, to do well in school, to pursue esoteric or difficult interests, etc., tend to be families where the parents are themselves well educated (tend, not always, and that's not to say there aren't less well educated parents who push education on their kids, especially among immigrant and minority demographics). Families with well educated parents, regardless of the parents' own background, tend to occupy higher class levels over time.

But anyone can afford to get a PhD, if they are qualified to obtain full funding for graduate school. The opportunity cost is high relative to becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a businessperson or engineer, for sure. But not everyone is seeking only to maximize their income potential, and this includes plenty of less well off people who are less well off because they're less materialistic, not because they don't value education or professional achievement.

Looking at my program's current mix of students (and indeed, the current mix of students in the other dozen or so PhD programs I know well), I'd say the vast majority come from "middle middle class" backgrounds -- family incomes between $60K and $100K. A few come from working-class backgrounds. Many come from academic families (which, stereotypes aside, are not generally all that well off -- the median starting salary for an assistant professor, tenure track, full time, in the US is around $55K, and the top of the curve is around $110-120K for all but superstar professors).

There's an amazing amount of stereotyping in this thread. A PhD is not a pursuit for the idle rich, and it's not fun and games. It's damn hard work, and the career path is risky.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:56 AM on August 10, 2008

Indeed, I will add that as I think about it, I can count on one hand the number of students I've trained in my own 15 years teaching PhD students who came from "wealthy" backgrounds. Really, I can think of four rich kids out of perhaps 40 or 50 students whose dissertation committees I've served on.

I will also mention, in reference to a comment above, that a very significant number of PhD students in anthropology, the field I know best, come from missionary family backgrounds, or military family backgrounds, or academic or diplomatic family backgrounds. That's because anthropologists tend to be people who have lived in many places, or in challenging places, learned more than one language, had to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds, and had to learn to fit in as kids in new communities on a regular basis. Military, missionary, faculty, and diplomatic brats move all the time, often to challenging places. It hones a specific kind of intelligence to grow up that way, and leads many people into the social sciences, where that cross-cultural intelligence is valued as an asset.
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:00 AM on August 10, 2008

"Full funding" is a relative term. Every grad student I've known was unable (or just barely able) to make ends meet with just their stipend. The shortfall was made up with student loans, savings, or money from mom and dad (which, as others have pointed out, are safety nets those from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds will not have).

I don't really think this is true. I do agree that the pay is typically on the edge of the poverty line, but the ability to get by without assistance on this pay is completely independent of having any kind of socio-economic safety net. In fact, I'd suspect that coming from a more advantaged background would make it harder. I certainly had no need for any of these safety nets, and most grad students that I have known did not either, except to some extent student loans (which, AFAIK are available to grad students of any socioeconomic background...) I really agree with fourcheesemac's point that "a PhD is not a pursuit for the idle rich, and it's not fun and games." Success (once you get there) depends mostly on factors like your drive, focus, and ability to cope with tremendous stress and pressure; not whether you are broke.

The question of whether getting there involves some socioeconomic selection is of course quite different, and perhaps has a different answer, as people here have suggested.
posted by advil at 7:03 PM on August 10, 2008

I'd say the vast majority come from "middle middle class" backgrounds -- family incomes between $60K and $100K.

That means the vast majority comes from families in the 60th to 80th percentile of US household incomes.

Really, I can think of four rich kids out of perhaps 40 or 50 students whose dissertation committees I've served on.

The smart rich kids I've known in academe make extreme efforts to keep their money under wraps, since being known as a rich kid is not good for one's career.
posted by backupjesus at 6:28 AM on August 11, 2008

"Middle class" precisely does not mean "median," backupjesus. It's a social category, not a statistical one. If one insists on locating it on an income scale, perhaps I should start lower (50K for a family of four). But not much lower. Below that you are indeed in the majority, but whether you call it "working class" or "lower middle class," your class is indeed not well represented in America's PhD programs. Or it's BA college programs.

People who go to graduate school have gone to college and earned a BA degree.

That already eliminates well more than two thirds of all Americans from being relevant comparisons when considering the pool of potential graduate students in philosophy or any other field.

Intuitively, most of us who live in the US would -- I think -- agree that a family of four making 60K a year is in the "solid" middle-middle class with respect to the demography of graduate study.

/social scientist
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:28 AM on August 12, 2008

advil is quite right. In the better PhD programs with full funding, most students do live on their stipends, sometimes supplemented by student loans (which are only marginally indexed to family income for graduate students) and often a small amount of paid work. Only a few of my fellow students relied on family money. The pattern has been replicated in my years of teaching graduate students.

Being a PhD student is a full time job. You do need to be able to "afford" a long apprenticeship at low pay to enter the academic profession -- compared to people in other professions the opportunity cost is very, very high. But I repeat that not all individuals seek -- as a primary goal -- to maximize their income potential by seeking education, and certainly not at the doctoral level. Someone bright and driven enough to get a PhD from a good program could also very likely have gone to law school, or business school, or med school, and made much more money.

I agree with the OP that there are social and cultural factors that affect the way one "consumes" education, and for what purpose. Indeed, students who come from financially secure families are often encouraged to seek personal fulfillment over and above maximum income. All of that is true.

But there are not as many structural barriers -- leaving aside the cultural ones for now -- as one might think to an academic career and a PhD for a bright, driven working-class student who has found her way into a halfway decent undergraduate college. (I'm leaving aside the structural barriers to finding that college education, to be sure).

I'll add a personal note. I'm a social scientist who works in working-class communities and who writes about class and power in America. Helping working-class students get PhDs has been a central focus of my career, and ironically, I left a major public university for a prestigious private university early in my career, in part *precisely* because the wealth of the latter made it possible for me to fully fund working-class students who would have had to patch and struggle with the much poorer funding at the (prestigious) public university.

The dream of a meritocratic education system is one where family resources simply don't matter except at the margins. Undergrad education in America has drifted -- like primary and secondary education -- away from that ideal with alarming speed in recent years, after making a pass at getting it right in the 1960s and 70s. It's why the Ivy League schools are basically giving away educations to poor students now -- and in fact competing over them in some cases.

But elite graduate education -- leaving aside that it inherits all these prior structural barriers -- is still a lot closer to the ideal. Every student in my program gets the same funding, and most make do on it regardless of how well off their families are. There's a certain pride in (what one hopes is temporary) poverty that is part of the elan of graduate school, in fact.

(This is also a system that is biased toward the young, of course, but that's another story and in my view there is an ethical justification for biasing a scarce educational resource toward the young.)
posted by fourcheesemac at 7:43 AM on August 12, 2008

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