Measuring Upward Mobility in Times of Change

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How can we understand patterns of upward mobility, and the forces that may shape these patterns, in places undergoing rapid social and economic change? Many of the places where today’s young people are growing up are “developing” countries. The realities and choices young people are navigating in these places can be quite different than those their parent’s faced. Both the measures used to describe these young people’s place in their social worlds and policy supports must adapt, and continue adapting, through this change. In the first chapter, I consider the socio-economic composition of one elite destination: engineering bachelor’s degrees in India. This national context is one of many where rapid expansion in higher education has taken places in the last decade. Yet it remains unclear whether all young people from across the socio-economic spectrum are present in higher education, a question complicated by gaps in data, unfit measures, and the unknown influence of rapid change itself on definitions of socio-economic origins. This paper addresses these bigger questions by focusing on one potential pathway to socio-economic advantage: engineering undergraduate degrees in India. I find five distinct socio-economic origin subgroups within the student body, using Latent Class Analysis, a model-based technique for identifying hidden populations. A significant proportion of India’s engineering students come from backgrounds of mixed advantage and disadvantage, with socio-economic disadvantages cooccurring alongside rural and/or low caste backgrounds. This complexity is less apparent using traditional one-dimensional measures of socio-economic status. Additionally, I find that the process of gaining access likely differs between institutional quality tiers. A higher proportion of groups eligible for affirmative action, and a lower proportion of women, regardless of socio-economic origins, attend top tier institutions. This divergent pattern suggests different attainment processes, and that enrollment policies may provide some narrow support for expanding opportunity. More broadly, these findings suggest that context specific, multidimensional approaches to social stratification in places experiencing significant change can both improve our understanding of status attainment and more directly inform opportunity enhancing policy. In a second paper, I zoom out from the specific destination approach in the first paper, instead considering the population level trajectories of the 1980’s birth cohort in Indonesia, using panel data from the Indonesia Family Life Survey. I again consider multiple dimensions of status, examining changes in the distribution of educational attainment, occupations, and household consumption over 20 years. I find that education, the most common way of measuring upward mobility in developing countries, suggests lower rates of upward mobility than occupation or consumption, but urge caution in making these comparisons given the unique nature of each hierarchy. Significant upward shifts in the education distribution between parents and children, unaccompanied by commensurate shifts in occupation make comparison difficult. Secondly, I measure the occupation, salary, and consumption distributions for those who reach the “top” of the education distribution, finding significant heterogeneity. Taken together, I suggest that untangling these complexities for one cohort is a useful complement to the extant literature on cross-national comparisons of educational mobility. The final paper represents a departure from the preceding two. This paper is co-authored with Carolyn Barnes who served as lead author. In this paper, we investigate a gap in the literatures on social support, social ties, and childcare. This qualitative study applies concepts from social capital theory to examines 1) how social ties between parents and staff members develop and vary and 2) how parents mobilize these ties for resources. In doing so, we analyze 23 in-depth staff interviews and 48 parent interviews across three after-school programs. We find that a select group of parents develop and activate strong social ties with staff for social support. Strong tie development reflects a distinct social process of rapport building, time, shared experiences, and pivotal moments in which staff members demonstrate trustworthiness. While distinct, I argue this paper contributes to a broader research agenda on measurement of processes and outcomes within a specific context, illuminating insights missed by large scale comparisons.






Nolan, Sarah (2022). Measuring Upward Mobility in Times of Change. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from


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