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Working Paper 22-4

Socioeconomic diversity of economics PhDs

March 2022
JEL codes: A11, A20, J44, J71
Keywords: Economics, Economists, Economics Education, Diversity and Inclusion, Socioeconomic Background, Socioeconomic Inequality

Note: For helpful comments the authors thank Alex Albright, Zach Bleemer, Stephanie Cheng, Raquel Fernández, Cameron Fletcher, Egor Gornostay, James Hanley, Kathryn Holston, Fabian Kosse, Kyra Rodriguez, Madi Sarsenbayev, David Wilcox, and participants at a Peterson Institute virtual research seminar and the 2021 Bank of Canada, Bank of England, Federal Reserve and European Central Bank Conference on Diversity and Inclusion in Economics, Finance, and Central Banking.

1. Introduction

It is well documented that women and racial and ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the US economics profession, relative both to the general population and to many other academic disciplines (see, for example, Bayer and Rouse 2016; Bayer and Wilcox 2019; Lundberg and Stearns 2019; Wessel, Sheiner, and Ng 2019; Lundberg 2020; Bayer, Hoover, and Washington 2020; Ginther and Kahn 2021). However, less is known about the socioeconomic backgrounds of those in the economics profession, largely because such data are scarcer than data on gender and race/ethnicity.1

In this paper, we use data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), an annual census of all individuals who receive a research doctorate from an accredited US institution in a given academic year, to examine the socioeconomic background of economics PhD recipients in the United States and compare it with that of PhD recipients in other disciplines. To proxy for socioeconomic background, we use the highest education level attained by a parent or guardian of the PhD recipient, segmenting into three categories:2 at least one parent with a graduate degree, at least one parent with a BA (but no parent with a graduate degree), and no parent with a BA (PhD recipients in this category are also referred to as “first-generation college graduates,” following Pascarella et al. 2004). Parental education is one of the three most commonly used indicators of socioeconomic background in academic research, alongside parental incomes and occupations (see, for example, Duncan, Featherman, and Duncan 1972; Hauser 1994). We analyze separately US-born and foreign-born PhD recipients, as inferences about socioeconomic background from parental education status can vary substantially by country of origin.

PhD recipients in general, across disciplines, come from substantially more socioeconomically advantaged backgrounds than the population of college graduates (e.g., Mullen, Goyette, and Soares 2003). Similarly, the population of college graduates is more socioeconomically advantaged than the US population as a whole.

Our analysis of the SED data shows that economics is even more unrepresentative by socioeconomic background than the average PhD field. Among US-born PhD recipients over 2010–18, 65 percent of economics PhD recipients had at least one parent with a graduate degree, compared with 50 percent across all PhD fields (and 29 percent for the population of US-born BA recipients over the same period). At the other end of the spectrum, only 14 percent of US-born economics PhD recipients in 2010–18 were first-generation college graduates, compared with 26 percent across all PhD fields (and 44 percent among all US-born BA recipients). This makes economics the least socioeconomically diverse of any major field for US-born PhD recipients. And its socioeconomic diversity appears to have worsened over time: while economics has consistently been less socioeconomically diverse than both the other social sciences and the biological and physical sciences, since 2000 it has also diverged from mathematics and computer science, the other two least socioeconomically diverse large PhD fields.

The lack of socioeconomic diversity in economics is striking compared with other PhD fields and even more striking compared with the general population. We use census data on educational attainment by age to estimate the share of the similar-aged US population with no parents with a BA (66 percent), at least one parent with a BA (21 percent), or at least one parent with a graduate degree (13 percent). US-born economics PhD recipients are roughly five times more likely than the similar-aged general US population to have a parent with a graduate degree, and five times less likely to have no parent with a college degree.

We next analyze the socioeconomic background of foreign-born PhD recipients. Economics is one of the most internationally diverse PhD fields, with almost 70 percent of PhD recipients born outside the United States (compared with an average of around half in other PhD disciplines). While parental education is a more complicated measure of socioeconomic background when comparing across countries, we still see that among foreign-born PhDs, economics is one of the least socioeconomically diverse PhD disciplines: 30 percent have no parent with a BA, the smallest share among large PhD disciplines, and 39 percent have at least one parent with a graduate degree, one of the highest shares. This means that, even though economics has a larger share of foreign-born students than most other fields, and even though foreign-born students are more likely to come from backgrounds with less parental education than US-born students, economics is still one of the least socioeconomically diverse disciplines overall.

Why is economics more unrepresentative by socioeconomic background than other PhD disciplines? Any hypotheses must seek to explain both why economics has an unusually low share of people who are first-generation college graduates and why it has an unusually high share of people from the most advantaged backgrounds (proxied here as those with at least one parent with a graduate degree). We document four stylized facts that can help inform possible explanations.

First, students in the majors that feed into economics PhDs (economics, mathematics, and other social sciences) tend to be less socioeconomically diverse than students across the full pool of BA majors. For example, data from the Baccalaureate and Beyond survey3 indicate that for US-born undergraduate students graduating with a BA from a US institution in 2016, 22 percent of economics graduates had no parent with a BA or higher, compared with 34 percent across math and social science graduates, and 42 percent across all fields.

Second, US-born economics PhD recipients got their BA from institutions that are on average less socioeconomically diverse than the BA institutions from which the average PhD comes. For example, 54 percent of US-born economics PhD recipients (2010-18) had a BA from a private university, compared with 41 percent across all disciplines. 16 percent of US-born economics PhD recipients had a BA from an “Ivy Plus” school—defined as the Ivy League plus MIT, Stanford, Chicago, and Duke—compared with 7 percent across all disciplines.

Third, among US-born PhD recipients, across fields, the share with no parent with a college degree is strongly correlated with the shares who are female and who are an underrepresented racial or ethnic minority (URM).4 This suggests that some of the same factors that limit access to economics PhDs for these individuals in the United States may similarly limit access for those from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds.

Diversity of race and ethnicity has an important intersection with diversity of socioeconomic background. Among US-born PhDs, URM economists are much more likely to be from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, and economics PhDs from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds are disproportionately likely to be URM. Economists with both characteristics are likely to face intersecting professional barriers.

Nonetheless, it is important to emphasize that racial/ethnic diversity and socioeconomic diversity are to a large degree distinct issues and require distinct analysis. In each major racial and ethnic group, among US-born students, economics is less socioeconomically diverse than other large PhD disciplines. In addition, the majority of first-generation-college-graduate PhDs are not URM, and the majority of URM PhDs are not first-generation college graduates.

Fourth, although we show that BA major, BA institution, PhD institution, and the racial, ethnic, and gender composition of the student body can explain some of the difference in socioeconomic diversity between economics and other PhD fields, there is still a substantial unexplained differential after controlling for these factors in regression analysis. This suggests that other factors specific to economics at the graduate level may also play a role.

There is reason to believe that the economics professoriate may be even less socioeconomically diverse than the population of economics PhDs: A recent survey of eight disciplines (not including economics) showed that the tenure-track professoriate within these eight disciplines is on average substantially less socioeconomically diverse than the population of PhD recipients (Morgan et al. 2021). Noting that the economics professoriate is drawn predominantly from a small number of elite PhD-granting institutions—for example, 50 percent of tenure-track faculty at the top 96 PhD-granting economics departments are graduates of the 15 top-ranked economics PhD programs (Jones and Sloan 2020)5—we can use data on the socioeconomic background of graduates from elite economics PhD programs to infer the possible socioeconomic background of the tenure-track economics professoriate in the US. Indeed, these 15 top-ranked programs are much less socioeconomically diverse than the average even among economics PhD programs. Among US-born graduates of these 15 economics PhD programs over 2010–18, 78 percent had at least one parent with a graduate degree, and only 6 percent were first-generation college graduates.

Overall, we find that economics PhDs are significantly less socioeconomically diverse than PhDs in other similar fields. Alongside the important focus on gender, race, and ethnicity, increasing both the representation and inclusion of individuals from less advantaged socioeconomic backgrounds should be a central part of the discussion on how to diversify the economics profession.