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It is well known that wealth is not distributed equally; even within a country, the wealthiest families are sometimes significantly wealthier than average or poor families.

My question is: does owning wealth mean these higher level groups of society do better academically than those who have less? Can a correlation or (better yet) a causation be established?

"Doing better academically" may be quantified with test scores, admissions rates to colleges or graduate schools, etc. (Since primary and secondary education are off-topic here, we will consider performance in college and beyond).

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    Interesting question. I rewrote a bit to bring it more in line with what we might be able to answer here. Of course, the challenge is that this SE only covers college and beyond, so there may be some selection bias (IIRC, wealthier people are more likely to apply to college). But I expect there is enough literature on this topic that smart people will have found ways to account for this bias.
    – cag51
    Jan 17 at 10:11
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    Why is it interesting? What will you do with the answer? Even supposing it is clear and unambiguous which, looking at the answers given now, is not brilliantly the case.
    – Dan
    Jan 17 at 23:19
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    I don't think you need research to realize that poor people tend not to be able to afford a long education, as they need to work and make a living sooner rather than later in life. Or - do you only mean once people are in an academic institution?
    – einpoklum
    Jan 17 at 23:30
  • @einpoklum most developed countries have government grants, subsidies and/or loans available for students. Why would poor people need to stop their education to work?
    – BrtH
    Jan 18 at 10:40
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    @BrtH: 1. Those are mitigation mechanisms for the problem of not being able to afford education, indicating its existence. 2. Loads are super-problematic, as the example of the US student debt crisis shows. 3. Those grants-and-subsidies would typically not cover most of what students pay, as otherwise the state could simply fund the academic institutions instead of students paying tuition (which is indeed what happens in many countries).
    – einpoklum
    Jan 18 at 11:50

5 Answers 5

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In the US, the Education Longitudinal Study of 2002 selected a "nationally representative cohort" of 10th grade (~16 year old) students in 2002 and followed up on them in 2012 to see how far they had gotten. This study quantified economic status by equally weighting "their parents' occupation, highest level of education, and income."

The results are here, but the bottom line is that:

  • for those in the top quartile, 60% got a bachelor's degree or higher
  • for those in the bottom quartile, only 14% did.

This is a well-regarded study, and the results are striking. My concern with this analysis, however, is that you asked about "wealth," but income comprises only 20% of this study's "economic status" variable. The rest of it takes into account the parents' educational status and careers. So, unemployed parents with tons of student debt could conceivably end up in the top quartile, while rich parents without a college degree could end up in a lower quartile.

This New York Times Article shows a simpler analysis: college attendance vs. parents' income percentile. This blog post redraws the curve showing college attendance vs. income in dollars. The latter is particularly striking:

  • For family incomes of $50K, ~40% of children attend college (the exact number is a little hard to read on the graph).
  • For family incomes of $200K+, ~90% of children attend college.

It's not possible to infer causation from this: did the extra money open doors directly (e.g., for tutors, private schools, fancy summer programs)? Or is there some other explanation (e.g, that parents whose parenting style engenders college attendance also tend to be rich)? And merely attending college is a poor metric of "academic performance" (though I struggle to think of a satisfactory metric). At any rate, the correlation between income and college attendance is well established.

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    The question could also be asked how much of the bottom 14 % did a trade and are now better off financially than the top 60 % that studied gender studies or archeology.
    – Neil Meyer
    Jan 17 at 17:56
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    I'm not convinced that attending college (measured in your NYT example) really corresponds to "academic performance". It probably does correspond for the lower-income groups, where college attendance often becomes possible only by winning a scholarship. But for the wealthier groups, college attendance may be just a matter of the parents' willingness to pay, regardless of academic performance. Jan 17 at 19:02
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    Note that income is not the same as wealth (i.e., net worth). But there may in fact be no studies on the latter. Perhaps income info is easier to obtain (e.g. from tax data)? Jan 17 at 22:29
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    These are not analyses of academic performance, they are analyses of academic acceptance and completion which is a very different thing. It is obvious that in the U.S., financial means significantly affects the likelihood of applying for, attending and completing academic degrees. The question however was not phrased with a basis on these measures, but rather on the basis of test scores and admission rates, neither of which are mentioned in this answer, nor AFAIK in the referenced articles. Jan 18 at 15:34
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    An interesting definition of "wealth": "This study quantified economic status by equally weighting "their parents' occupation, highest level of education, and income" (?) or is that clearly a proxy for something other, as college professors (a notable occupation), assumed highly academically rated with modest income is clearly not the portrait of the wealthy.
    – AJKOER
    Jan 18 at 18:58
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I think this might vary across countries. I can give you an overview on Germany. On this website, an offcial report on academic education from 2020 looks at the socioeconomic status of university attendants from entering university to PhD. It is only in German, but some of the main points can be gathered easily from the graphs even without knowledge of German:

People with academic parents (and thus presumably also a higher economic status) are three times more likely to go to university, 4 times more likely to obtain a bachelors degree and 10 times more likely to complete a PhD compared to those coming from a non-academic household. On all tiers (BA,MA,PhD), the number of drop-outs is much higher for people from non-academic households.

Reasons given are that more students from non-academic households are more likely to study part-time, as they are more likely working on the side. 72% of university drop-outs from non-academic households do so because of financial reasons - even though university education is free in Germany.

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    I'm fairly certain that being able to dedicate all the time to your studies and not worry about money is universally helpful. A country would have to invest into science so heavily that both stipends and wages are higher in the academia than any other sector so that financial aspects are fully aligned with academic success. Maybe there is such a country of course but I'm yet to hear of it :)
    – Lodinn
    Jan 17 at 11:03
  • The question relates to a wealth effect and, especially in select countries like America, associating PhD families as a prominent constituent of the wealthy class (more likely just upper middle) is a stretch, in my opinion.
    – AJKOER
    Aug 20 at 22:03
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In Australia, the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) has conducted some crude analysis on the correlation between education level and wealth. This analysis does not go down into the details of academic performance beyond segmenting into groups based on highest education level. Nevertheless, as with many other studies on this topic, they find a substantial correlation between education and wealth.

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    Can you go into further detail? How substantial is that correlation? Yes, I know that it's probably all in the paper you linked, but stack exchange answers should be valuable even after all the links in it break.
    – Philipp
    Jan 17 at 14:19
  • The link to the article answers the title question, so I'm happy to leave the details for the reader to peruse from the linked source.
    – Ben
    Jan 17 at 14:25
  • This addresses the converse question: higher educational attainment is associated with successively greater future wealth. (The summary divides people aged 30-65 into six categories ranging from highschool-dropout to masters/doctorate, looks at different kinds of asset wealth; apparently controlling for income/age/gender/occupation does not alter the trend.)
    – benjimin
    Jan 26 at 8:51
  • There is no converse question with statistical correlation; it is a symmetric operator.
    – Ben
    Feb 3 at 20:52
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There is a huge literature in sociology on inequality in educational opportunities. A fairly recent review of that international literature can be found here: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev.soc.31.041304.122232

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    From the abstract, it's not clear how the linked paper is related to the question. Could you please expand your answer to summarize and include the relevant conclusions?
    – Massimo Ortolano
    Jan 17 at 16:37
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On the question “Is there any research showing a correlation between wealth and academic performance?”, interestingly in America, we have an extensive parochial school educational system. Here is a report with statistics as available here, to quote:

Math and reading are included in the most recent Digest of Education Statistics, published in February 2021 by the National Center for Education Statistics. The NAEP science scores were released Tuesday in conjunction with a press conference. “Every year for the last 20 years, Catholic schools have outperformed public schools on NAEP tests—reading, math, science, computer literacy, geography, history,” said Sister Dale McDonald, PBVM, director of Public Policy and Educational Research for the National Catholic Education Association. “We’re happy to have our achievement validated by an outside, public, federal agency.” …NAEP, also known as The Nation’s Report Card, assesses academic achievement using the frameworks developed by the National Assessment Governing Board. The assessment measures student progress in grades 4, 8, and 12.

Now, Catholic schools are part of the private school population but have fees generally accessible by a large portion of middle class Americans, who would not consider themselves as wealthy.

As such, while there may be an overall seemingly significant correlation between wealth and academic performance, clearly wealth is not a causative variable, given the statistics presented. More likely, it is just a proxy variable for other beneficial characteristics including hard work, discipline and family support, also demonstrated in the more successful wealthy families, that generally promotes good academic performance.

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  • Hard work, discipline and family support presumably also correlate well with education achievement but what makes you think that wealth is a proxy for these variables? Do you have any statistic that shows that wealthy families do better on hard work, discipline and family support?
    – quarague
    Jan 18 at 18:07

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