Case study

The education effect: How education is associated with personal and social benefits

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Author: Matthew Easterbrook, Cardiff Universitiy, in collaboration with Antony Manstead, Cardiff University, and Toon Kuppens, University of Groningen

Date: 20 May 2014

Type of case study: Research

About the research

It’s a common assumption that a person’s educational achievements say a great deal about their social status. Indeed, salary, job title, and even choice of marriage partners have become more closely related to education level than to more traditional indicators like family social class, demonstrating just how important a person’s education level is in determining where they stand in society, and with whom they interact.

This high value on education may account for the finding that education levels predict a range of important personal and socio-political outcomes such as political interest and cynicism, social trust, health, well-being, nationalism, and attitudes towards immigrants and immigration. But research to date has not directly compared the strength of the ‘education effect’ on this diverse range of outcomes, nor whether these effects have remained stable over time.

This study, funded by the ESRC’s Secondary Data Analysis Initiative, is the first to compare the strength and stability of the ‘education effect’ on such a range of variables over time. It is also the first to investigate whether these variables change over time for the same individuals, and whether this change is related to their level of education.

The findings indicate that higher education levels are robustly associated with higher levels of political interest, social trust, health, and well-being, and lower levels of political cynicism and hostile intergroup attitudes. These effects were also found to be relatively stable over time. Furthermore, most of these beneficial effects of education are due to the benefits associated with achieving a university education.

These education effects were also found within the same individuals over time. Especially for social trust -- a variable often seen as the glue which binds a successful society together -- the effect of education tends to become stronger as individuals age.

Education effect

The analyses demonstrate the pervasiveness of the education effect, and underscore the need for education (and especially higher education) to be made as widely accessible as possible.

About the data

This study drew on data from three collections available from the UK Data Service.

The British Social Attitudes Survey, 1986-2011 is a repeated cross-sectional survey of more than 3,000 adults that produces annual data measuring attitude shifts relating to facts and behaviour patterns as well as information on party political attitudes. One of the survey’s main purposes is to monitor patterns of continuity and change, and to examine the relative rates at which social attitudes change over time.

The British Household Panel Survey, 1991-2008 is an annual survey of all adults in a nationally representative sample of more than 5,000 households. Because the same people are re-interviewed in successive waves, the data provide insights into individual socio-economic circumstances and attitudes over time.

The International Social Survey Programme, 1991-2011 is a continuing annual programme of cross-national collaboration on surveys covering topics of interest to social science research. It brings together national social science projects and co-ordinates research goals, thereby adding a cross-national, cross-cultural perspective to each national study. Every survey includes questions about general attitudes toward various social issues such as the legal system, gender, and the economy. Special topics have included the role of government, social inequality, social support, family and gender issues, work orientation, the impact of religious background, behaviour, and beliefs on social and political preferences, and national identity. Participating countries vary for each topical module.

Methodology

For data from the British Social Attitudes Survey, the researchers used multi-level regression analyses of individuals nested within survey years, covering the years 1986 to 2011. They used each person’s highest educational qualification to predict the following outcomes: political interest and cynicism, social trust, health, well-being, nationalism, and attitudes towards immigrants and immigration. They also controlled for individuals’ age, gender, income, occupational status, and marital status.

For data from the British Household Panel Survey, they used latent growth modelling to analyse within-individual change across the survey years 1992-2008 in interest in politics, social trust, well-being, and nationalism, and whether the individual’s highest qualification predicted this change.

For data from the International Social Survey Programme, they used multi-level regression with individuals nested within nations and within survey year (1995-2011) to assess the effect of level of education on these outcomes.

Publications and outputs

Findings from this research are currently under peer-review for an academic publication.

This study has also attracted additional funding from the European Association of Social Psychology for related research into the role of identity in explaining why stigma (such as low education) is associated with these outcomes, and is being continued by further studies at both Cardiff University and the University of Groningen.

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