Social class returns to higher education: chances of access to the professional and managerial salariat for men in three British birth cohorts

Erzsebet Bukodi, John Goldthorpe


In economics there is a well-established tradition of research into the earnings returns to education. We aim to make a sociological contribution by focusing on the social class returns: specifically, by examining the returns to higher education as indicated by chances of access to the professional and managerial salariat, while also taking into account the effects of cognitive ability and class origins and differences in access to professional and managerial positions. We draw on data for men from three British birth cohort studies covering children born in 1946, 1958 and 1970. We find that while over the period covered the growth of the salariat ensured that absolute returns to both higher and lower tertiary qualifications were largely maintained, despite the growing numbers with such qualifications, returns relative to those to higher secondary qualifications diminished. Also, the advantages offered by lower tertiary qualifications as compared with higher secondary qualifications differ according to men’s class origins. Overall, there is no evidence of any increase in education-based, meritocratic selection to the salariat. Rather, the growth of the salariat appears to be associated with some decline in its selectivity in terms of both qualifications and cognitive ability, with this decline being more marked in its managerial than in its professional components.


social class; higher education; birth cohort studies

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