What We’re Reading: The Socioeconomic Roots of Academic Faculty

A paper titled “Socioeconomic Roots of Academic Faculty” by Allison C. Morgan, Nicholas LaBerge, Daniel B. Larremore, Mirta Galesic, and Aaron Clauset, all from the University of Colorado Boulder, contained some interesting findings on the backgrounds of faculty and how they affect their career path.

A survey of over 7,000 faculty members from PhD-granting departments across eight disciplines (Computer Science, Business, History, Psychology, Physics & Astronomy, Anthropology, and Biology) noted stark differences in the percentage of faculty that have highly-educated or well-off parents compared to the general population.

The researchers concluded that half of the faculty surveyed had parents with a graduate degree and 22.2% of parents had a Ph.D. Additionally, Ph.D. holders who are faculty are twice as likely to have Ph.D. parents than Ph.D. holders who do not pursue faculty roles. Parents of faculty are also significantly more likely than the general population to live in wealthier neighborhoods and own their own house.

“Progress towards broadening participation in science will remain limited if our current definitions of meritocracy within academia implicitly favor individuals with the inherited advantages conferred by wealth and education,” the paper wrote. 

Additionally, when separating out faculty at “elite” institutions (defined as top 20 percentile in the US News World Rankings), that group was twice as likely to have Ph.D. parents compared to their peers at other institutions. The researchers noted this trend has held true going back 70 years, and that this data implies that the inequality is not limited to the pipeline into academia—it also affects their trajectories within academia. On top of that, faculty members with Ph.D. parents also experience more career support and financial support, which likely plays a role in their overrepresentation at elite schools.

Clauset, a computer science professor and an author of the paper, said on Twitter: “The intersection of the socioeconomic roots of faculty with race, gender, and geography poses broad challenges for efforts to diversify academia, and our findings highlight their intergenerational nature.”