Continuing Education and Stratification at Midlife

Eric Grodsky, Catherine Doren, Koit Hung, Chandra Muller, John Robert Warren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


We ask whether patterns of racial ethnic and socioeconomic stratification in educational attainment are amplified or attenuated when we take a longer view of educational careers. We propose a model of staged advantage to understand how educational inequalities evolve over the life course. Distinct from cumulative advantage, staged advantage asserts that inequalities in education ebb and flow over the life course as the population at risk of making each educational transition changes along with the constraints they confront in seeking more education. Results based on data from the 2014 follow up of the sophomore cohort of High School and Beyond offer partial support for our hypotheses. The educational attainment process was far from over for our respondents as they aged through their 30s and 40s: More than 6 of 10 continued their formal training during this period, and 4 of 10 earned an additional credential. Patterns of educational stratification at midlife became more pronounced in some ways as women pulled further ahead of men in their educational attainments and parental education (but not income), and high school academic achievement continued to shape educational trajectories at the bachelor’s degree level and beyond. However, African Americans gained on whites during this life phase through continued formal (largely academic) training and slightly greater conditional probabilities of graduate or professional degree attainment; social background fails to predict earning an associate’s degree. These results, showing educational changes and transitions far into adulthood, have implications for our understanding of the complex role of education in stratification processes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)341-360
Number of pages20
JournalSociology of Education
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This material is based on work supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation under grant number 2012-10-27, the National Science Foundation under grant numbers HRD 1348527 and HRD 1348557, and the Institute for Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education under grant number R305U140001. This project also benefited from support provided by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute for Child Health and Human Development to the University of Texas at Austin (R24-HD042849), the University of Wisconsin-Madison (P2C-HD047873), and the University of Minnesota (P2C-HD041023). This manuscript has been subject to disclosure review and has been approved by the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute for Education Sciences in line with the terms of the High School and Beyond restricted use data agreement. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of our funding sources.

Publisher Copyright:
© American Sociological Association 2021.


  • adult education
  • higher education
  • longitudinal studies of education
  • school
  • status attainment
  • transitions

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article


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