New study shows that - even after controlling for subject, degree class, alma mater and occupation - graduates who attended private schools earn on average 6% more than those who attended state schools. 

If higher education is to be a route to social mobility then the link between family background and adult outcomes must be broken

Anna Vignoles

New research shows that graduates who went to private schools earn substantially more than those who went to state schools. Even amongst graduates who went to the same university to study the same subject and who left with the same degree class, those who attended private school earned on average 7% more.

Previous work by the researchers found that graduates who attended private schools are more likely to enter higher status and higher paying occupations. But, once they matched occupations in the comparison fields for the latest research, latest research showed that those who went to a private school still earn 6% more, on average, than those who went to a state school. This is currently equivalent to around £1,500 a year.

The findings suggest that even when universities widen participation to students from poor backgrounds, there are social inequalities in the success of graduates when they leave higher education.

The new study, published recently by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, and funded by the Nuffield Foundation, concludes that further research is needed to determine the causes behind the pay gap - whether it is access to particular social networks or better non-cognitive skills such as confidence or self-esteem. Regardless of the explanation, the authors suggest that these results add further weight to the argument that higher education is not the great leveller it was hoped to be. 

“Whilst universities have been making strenuous efforts to widen participation in recent years, what happens after students leave their university is also enormously important for their prospects for social mobility. If higher education is to be a  route to social mobility then  the link between family background and adult outcomes must be broken, or at least reduced, for graduates,” said study co-author Professor Anna Vignoles, from Cambridge’s Faculty of Education.

“These results suggest that there is a pressing need to understand why private schooling confers such an advantage in the labour market, even amongst similarly achieving graduates.”

Researchers used longitudinal samples from the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education survey to look at gross annual earnings six months after graduation, with a sample of 75,000 graduates and for a subset of these they looked at earnings three and a half years after graduation.

The researchers found that after six months the graduates who attended private school earned an average of £3,000 more than their state school contemporaries. They then looked at the earnings of graduates who left university in 2007 in January 2011, approximately three and a half years later. After this time the gap had increased, with former private school pupils earning an average of £4,500 more than those who attended a state school - amounting to a pay gap of roughly 17%.  

Arguably this might be expected, say the researchers, as some of the higher earnings of graduates who attended private schools is down to the fact that they have better A-level grades and this in turn enables them to go on to attend more prestigious universities and study subjects which tend to be more highly rewarded.

But once the researchers analysed graduates who went to the same university to study the same subject and who left with the same degree class, those who went to private schools still earn an average of 7% more three and a half years after graduation.

Amongst graduates from the same backgrounds, who studied the same subject in the same university, and who went into the same occupation, those from private schools still earn 6% more, on average, than those from state schools.

“Our research shows that, even amongst those who succeed in obtaining a degree, family background – and in particular the type of school they went to – continues to influence their success in the work place,” said co-author Dr Claire Crawford, from the University of Warwick’s Department of Economics.

Implicit within government policies to achieve social mobility through improving school and university results is the assumption that once a person has graduated from university, their family background and the school they went to will cease to impact on how much they earn, say the study’s authors, writing for the website The Conversation.

“But our new research proves that there is actually a strong relationship between the kind of schools graduates attended and their success in the labour market. Future research might usefully focus on why the influence of family background lingers long beyond graduation,” they write.


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