Higher Education Attainment & Value

Sex and Ethnic/Racial Differences

Education was universally voiced as one path towards the American Dream, or at least the chance to achieve greater. All participants valued their higher education and in the podcast, we described the benefits of a degree. But as Hannah Beshey noted: “I think obviously if you’re someone who’s white, you’re heterosexual, particularly you’re a man, you’re so much more likely to be able to attain that vision of success.” Our podcast delved into socioeconomic factors of attaining education, but we only briefly touched upon the roles of gender and race/ethnicity in achieving this facet of the American Dream. With education being recognizably important, how do our classifications at birth, specifically race and gender, play into the value and the attainment of a degree? How are we ‘doing gender’ when it comes to the American Dream? How are we ‘doing race’?

The Review of Higher Education published an article that answers these questions, and more. Using data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, Laura Perna tracked about 10,000 high school graduates for eight years following their graduation (1992 – 2000). She followed both their economic gains (i.e. income) and their non-economic gains (i.e., type of job), in order to examine the sex and racial/ethnic differences in higher education attainment and value.

Interestingly, she found that more women attended college than men. By the end of the study, 41% of women earned a bachelor’s degree, 8 percentage points higher than men. As part of an explanation, Perna discovered that women agreed, 11% more of the time, that college resulted in better jobs, higher salary, more responsibilities at work, greater opportunities for promotion, and improved job performance. This seems to counteract what was said in Where the Millenials Will Take Us. Risman explained how we are sexed and gendered, and mentioned how women are expected to give up on career goals more often than men. Yet Perna found that more women are receiving degrees, and there is a greater ‘payoff’ for their degrees. However, this ‘payoff’ is dissuaded when looking at mean incomes – there is a staggering difference. The average woman earned a total of $273,592 over the eight years, while the average man earned $722,693 (in 1999 dollars). This was explained by women’s often lower positions in companies and underlying gender inequality, which enforces the arguments made in Where the Millenials Will Take Us.  

The second major conclusion, was that Asians, Whites, and those in a higher socioeconomic bracket earned degrees more frequently than African-Americans and Hispanics. Perna found that 51% of Asians and 41% of Whites completed a bachelor’s degree, but only 25% of African-Americans and 18% of Hispanics did the same. And as mentioned in Doing Race, people place assumptions of others based on what they assume their identity is. This makes America’s discrimination much more evident and highlights the income gaps between races.

Along with these key findings, Perna discovers many other nuances of sex and race/ethnicity in relation to higher education. I highly recommend you read her article to learn more!



Perna, Laura W. 2005. “The Benefits of Higher Education: Sex, Racial/Ethnic, and Socioeconomic Group Differences.” The Review of Higher Education 29(1):23–52.

Risman, Barbara J. 2018. Where the Millennials Will Take Us: a New Generation Wrestles with the Gender Structure. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Markus, Hazel Rose. and Paula M. L. Moya. 2010. Doing Race: 21 Essays for the 21st Century. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

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