A study by Toon Kuppens, Matt Easterbrook and Antony Manstead explores the strength and stability of the education effect on a wide range of outcomes over time (such as health, wellbeing, and political interest) and tries to pinpoint the psychological processes involved in many of these education effects. They argue that, since not everyone has an equal opportunity of getting to university but education is nevertheless seen as a legitimate source of status differences, we need to ensure that there is more equal access to education.
People’s level of formal education is the basis of an important division in contemporary societies. The expansion of secondary and tertiary education has increased education’s societal importance. For example, education has become a strong predictor of job status and has a large influence on whom we choose as life partners.
Although educational attainment is generally perceived as resulting from individual merit, social background still has a strong influence on how well people do at school. Not everyone has an equal opportunity of getting to university, but education is nevertheless seen as a legitimate source of status differences. Status inequalities have always existed but, because education is regarded as something that people achieve through their own merit, the increased importance of education can make social inequalities appear more legitimate than when they are based on differences in wealth.
This perception of educational attainment as a legitimate status marker means that it is a somewhat hidden divide. The importance of education seems self-evident and unproblematic to the more highly educated and does not lead to much open resistance on the part of the less highly educated. However, the sustained influence of social background on educational attainment and the extent of educational differences in outcomes and attitudes suggest that we need to pay more attention to education.
Educational differences in different domains (such as wellbeing, political interest, racism) have been investigated in isolation, but there has been no systematic attempt to examine the bigger picture. We therefore investigated the ‘education effect’ in a research project funded by the ESRC’s Secondary Data Analysis Initiative. Our study is the first to compare the strength and stability of the education effect on a wide range of outcomes over time. Most of the datasets we analysed are from the UK, but we also looked at international data. In related follow-up research we are starting to pinpoint the psychological processes involved in many of these education effects.
The education effect
Our findings highlight five important aspects of the education effect. First, there is a robust education effect for a wide range of variables. Higher levels of education are associated with better health and wellbeing, higher social trust, greater political interest, lower political cynicism, and less hostile attitudes towards immigrants and ethnic minorities. The wide extent of these effects is impressive – but also worrying.
Second, education is a stronger predictor of these outcomes than other indicators of socioeconomic status, such as income or employment status, in all of our statistical models except for those relating to wellbeing and health. We interpret this as reflecting the increased importance of education in society. This means that a focus on income alone cannot uncover all processes underlying today’s socioeconomic inequalities.
Third, education effects have been stable for at least 25 years. The data we looked at range from 1986 to 2011. This raises the question of what might happen in the future. Will the growing income inequality that we see in most societies eventually lead to a more important role for income?
Fourth, most of these effects of education are due to benefits associated with achieving a university degree. Whether or not you gain a university degree therefore seems to be an important divide in contemporary Britain (and the same is true for other European countries and for the US).
Fifth, the education effect does not wane as people age – in fact quite the contrary in the case of social trust, where the differences between highly and less highly educated become larger as people get older. This suggests that education effects are unlikely to result solely from education itself but also stem from the societal position associated with educational attainment.
Is educational stigma responsible?
What causes these education effects? Existing explanations tend to focus on one particular outcome or domain. We are trying a different approach by investigating whether similar psychological processes are involved in all (or at least many) education effects. This common explanation focuses on the extent to which education is (or can be) the basis of a group identity, that is, a sense that we share something significant with those who have the same educational level as us.
A positive group identity (as found for example in the ‘Black is beautiful’ and ‘Gay pride’ movements) carries many benefits for people, such as social support, self-esteem, and wellbeing. The problem is that being less educated is something for which people are perceived to be personally responsible. It is therefore difficult to construct a positive identity around a lack of education. Indeed, we find that those with lower levels of education are dissatisfied with their level of education and tend to reject education as an important part of who they are. Being less educated is not something that people can be proud of and the less educated even report feeling ashamed of their education level.
This is not without consequences. People who are satisfied with their education level and who incorporate education into their identity reap psychological benefits from doing so. The lack of pride among the less educated thus becomes problematic, because it signals a lack of such positive effects. We have been able to relate this lack of a positive group identity to undesirable outcomes such as lower life satisfaction, disengagement from politics, and negative attitudes towards immigrants and ethnic minorities. Group identity (or the lack thereof) thus seems to be a very fruitful avenue for research on the education effect.
Our results draw attention to education as the basis of an important social division. If education has become so important, not only for life chances but also for a wide range of desirable societal attitudes, we need to ensure that there is more equal access to education.
Education-based groups are not a frequent topic of conversation or scientific research. Nevertheless, they are real groups that affect not only one’s life chances but also the societal attitudes that are crucial to our democracy. People with lower levels of education are sometimes ridiculed and stigmatized. Consider for example how they are portrayed in the TV series ‘Little Britain’ or ‘Benefits Street’. Many educated people are ready to smile at ‘chav’ jokes, but would be disgusted if the word ‘chav’ were replaced by a derogatory term for a Black person. Why tolerate this difference? If we want to change the negative effects of being less educated, we need to be more supportive of the less educated, and take initiatives to improve their position in society.
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting. Featured image credit: Lauren Manning CC BY 2.0
Toon Kuppens is a post-doctoral researcher in social psychology at the University of Groningen, Netherlands. (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Matthew Easterbrook is a Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sussex. He is a social psychologist whose research focuses on inequality, identity, and motivation. (email@example.com; @matteasters)
Tony Manstead is Professor of Psychology at Cardiff University. His research interests are emotion, attitudes, and social identity. (MansteadA@Cardiff.ac.uk)