- Tenure-track faculty are up to 25 times more likely to have a parent with a doctorate than the rest of the population, according to research published this week in Nature Human Behaviour, a peer-reviewed journal. That rate nearly doubles at prestigious universities.
- Just over half of surveyed tenure-track faculty, 51.8%, reported having at least one parent with a master's degree or Ph.D., researchers found. Almost one in four, 22.2%, had a parent with a Ph.D., and 3.7% came from a household where both parents hold doctorates. By comparison, less than 1% of U.S. adults come from Ph.D. households, and 7.4% have parents with a graduate degree of any kind.
- The disproportionate representation of tenure-track academics who came from highly educated households — a gap that has been stable for the past 50 years — indicates a lack of socioeconomic diversity and suggests professorship remains inaccessible to most of the population, researchers said.
Socioeconomic diversity among faculty has lagged at U.S. colleges as student populations have become more mixed. On average, three out of every four full-time professors are White, compared to about half of students in degree-granting postsecondary institutions.
The newly published research shows a large racial gap in familial Ph.D. attainment, something researchers said could be an intergenerational impediment to Black and Hispanic academics reaching the tenure track.
Among White professors, 23.4% had a parent with a Ph.D. But only 17.2% and 16.9% of Black and Hispanic professors could say the same, respectively. The gap was especially pronounced among women — 25.5% of surveyed White women had a Ph.D. parent, compared to 14.6% of surveyed Black women.
This degree of educational stratification has ripple effects. Highly educated parents are likely to teach their children ideals that academics value, researchers wrote, and those children have more and earlier opportunities to participate in activities valued by academia. These experiences give them a leg up as adults when seeking to become tenured faculty.
Researchers surveyed current tenure-track faculty across 1,360 Ph.D.-granting departments from summer 2017 to fall 2020. The department subject areas — anthropology, biology, business, computer science, history, physics and astronomy, psychology, and sociology — were selected for their diversity of scholarship. The departments represent a broad sample of faculty at U.S. research-intensive institutions.
"The distributions of parents’ educational attainment are similar across the disciplines surveyed, suggesting that despite disciplinary differences in scholarship, funding and culture, having a parent with a Ph.D. is universally advantageous for becoming a professor," the study said.
In total, 7,204 faculty provided information on a parent’s highest level of education, and 4,807 provided the U.S. ZIP code in which they grew up.
From this data, researchers also found that tenure-track faculty tended to spend their childhoods in wealthier and more urban areas than the general public.
Using ZIP code data as a proxy for household income, researchers found that the surveyed faculty grew up in homes with a median income of $73,000. That's compared to a $59,000 average across all ZIP codes. A majority of faculty, 75.7%, also said their parents owned a home during the first 18 years of their life, which is substantially higher than the U.S. average for the applicable time.