Social Origin and Inequality of Opportunities in Colombia: Analysis of Educational Achievement and Occupational Attainment among University Graduates

Research Project (to be discussed at the Winter Academy) by Andrea Cuenca Hernández.

Andrea Cuenca is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Education, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. In her dissertation, she examines how socio-demographic factors, institutions and contexts influence educational achievement and occupational success.

This doctoral project analyzes the impact of social origins (SO) on educational achievement and occupational attainment of higher education (HE) graduates in Colombia. The questions addressed are: to what extent and through what mechanisms do SO determine the educational outcomes of individuals in the completion of a first university degree and the attendance of postgraduate education? To what extent and through what mechanisms do SO determine the occupation destination of graduates? And more generally, is the Colombian educational system contributing to equalize opportunities among individuals or reinforcing the inequalities associated to SO?

The research design consists of two main parts: (1) a statistical analysis of large existing datasets from the national information systems at the secondary and tertiary education levels, and; (2) of primary data collected from an online graduate survey. The first method allows capturing an overall scenario, by identifying the trajectories of university graduates (n=16,892) since the last year of school until their entrance into the world of work. The second part provides a deeper analysis on the explanatory mechanisms lying behind the reproduction of inequality of opportunities among a sample of this population (n=1,086).

Results from the first part suggest that SO have a significant impact on educational outcomes during secondary school but also at higher educational levels and in the later transition into the world of work. They point out that SO operate directly through socioeconomic status and cultural capital. The effects from the latter are particularly strong on the academic achievement at secondary education. SO also operate indirectly, through the segmentation of educational paths, on the academic quality of the institutions attended, and on income.

Two main complementary interpretations follow form these findings. On one hand, they are in accordance with the reproduction theories: highly-educated families through the parental credentials along with their economic capital, promote efficient learning environments for their children, who are more likely to reach the same educational level or higher. On the other hand, the mediation of family education between origin and destination suggest that it is also a device for social mobility. In this particular case, the quality of secondary school (strongly affected by parental credentials) is of special importance for later success at the university and the labor market. These findings emphasize the key issue of qualitative inequalities. Providing academic quality at secondary public schools is a way the Colombian educational system could break the existing link between origin and destination. At the HE level, however, while privatization has furthered participation of non-traditional students, it also has reinforced inequalities insofar as quality in private education continues to be a privilege.

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