Unequal access to higher education based on parental income: evidence from France
In this paper, Cécile Bonneau and Sébastien Grobon provide new stylized facts on inequalities in access to higher education by parental income in France. At the bottom of the income distribution, 35% of individuals have access to higher education compared to 90% at the top of the distribution. This overall level of inequality is surprisingly close to that observed in the United States. The authors then document how these inequalities in access to higher education by parental income combine with inequalities related to parental occupation or degree. Finally, they assess the redistributivity of public spending on higher education, and present a new accounting method to take into account the tax contribution of parents in our redistributivity analysis.
Figure : Access to higher education in France and the United States, by parents’ pre-tax income
This figure shows the proportion of individuals accessing higher education between the ages of 18 and 21 in France and in the United States, by parental income (based on figures from Chetty et al. (2020) for the United States). In France, the parental income used is the sum of the father’s pre-tax household income and the mother’s pre-tax household income, in 2014, divided by two when we have both the father’s and mother’s household income. In the United States, the parental income used is the mother’s total pre-tax income at the household level plus the father’s total pre-tax income at the household level for each year from 1996 to 2000, divided by 10 or by 5 if only one parent is identified.
- Access to higher education is highly unequal according to parental income in France: at the bottom of the income distribution, 35% of individuals have access to higher education compared to 90% at the top of the distribution. (Figure 1).
- Access to selective programs and master’s degrees is more unequal: in the bottom half of the income distribution, less than 5% of individuals access selective programs compared to 40% in the top 2% of the distribution (Figure 2).
- Female students have more access to higher education at a given parental income, but have less access than their male counterparts to selective higher education. At the top of the income distribution (10th decile), the proportion of female students accessing selective programs between 18 and 24 is half that of male students (Figure C4);
- Inequalities in access to higher education by parental income appear to be almost as pronounced in France as in the United States. In the United States, an increase of one decile in parental income is associated with an increase in the proportion of young people entering higher education of 6.1 percentage points compared to 5.7 percentage points in France. (Figure 4) ;
- Inequalities related to parents’ income and those related to their occupation or education complement each other. At a given level of SES or parental degree, the higher the income, the higher the proportion of individuals accessing higher education and vice versa. This means that even income that is not related to parental occupation or education is important in explaining access to higher education.
- Inequalities in access to higher education create large inequalities in public spending on higher education: Those in the bottom 30 percent of the income distribution receive between 7,000 and 8,000 euros of investment in higher education between the ages of 18 and 24, compared to about 27,000 euros –of which 18,000 euros correspond to public spending and 9,000 to private spending through tuitions paid by parents– for those in the top 10 percent of the income distribution (Figure 5a);
- Most of the inequalities in public spending (around 70%) are related to unequal access to higher education rather than to unequal spending for students.
- As female students go less to selective programs and less to the most expensive scientific programs, less public spending is invested in higher education for female students than for male students (up to 11,000 euros difference for the 10 percent of female students and the 10 percent male students for whom we spend the most). (Figure C13)
- Taking into account taxes paid by parents to finance higher education spending doesn’t change the redistributivity analysis unless at the top of the income distribution (Figure 7 dark blue curve)
- Adding other public spending for young adults and their parents (need-based scholarship, housing benefits, unemployment benefits, family benefits, tax deductions, etc.) doesn’t change the redistributivity pattern : those at the bottom of the income distribution benefit more from public support but those at the top benefit more from tax deductions (figure 6).
- When parental transfers are added to the total public and private spending, the amount is 2.5 times higher for young adults whose parents belong to the top decile of the income distribution than to the bottom income decile. Although only a portion of this expenditure is an educational investment in the strict sense, it nonetheless contributes to the youth’s empowerment and well-being. It can affect the young person’s educational and job-seeking choices, as well as his or her level of human capital in the broader sense. (Figure 7, grey curve).
- Increase the amount of need-based scholarships, which have been proven to increase access to higher education (Fack & Grenet, 2015). Also increase the proportion of students covered by these scholarships to two-thirds of the population (thus covering the working and middle classes).
- Give clearer and more transparent information on the choices of orientation: the insertion rates at 1, 5 and 10 years, the exit salaries (by gender), and the public expenses of each program are crucial information that should be included in Parcoursup (the centralized platform for pre-registration to higher education in France) so that high school students can make informed choices.
- Modify the recruitment criteria of selective programs to ensure a more diversified recruitment (in terms of social origin, geographical origin and gender).
- Reduce inequalities in higher education spending among programs and fields: a bachelor’s degree student costs 3,600 euros per year, a preparatory course student costs 13,400 euros, and some students in elite graduate school cost up to 60,000 euros per year -> this would allow to reduce the inequalities in public investment by gender.
- More skill support earlier in the educational career: access to academic high school degree is already highly unequal.
- Cécile Bonneau (PSE ; ENS-PSL) : email@example.com
- Sébastien Grobon (CES ; Dares) : firstname.lastname@example.org
Olivia Ronsain: email@example.com; +33 7 63 91 81 68
This work was supported by the French National Research Agency Grant ANR-17-EURE-0001. We would like to thank Gabrielle Fack for her very helpful and relevant feedback throughout this project, as well as Jérôme Gautié, Julien Grenet, Thomas Piketty and François-Charles Wolff for their valuable comments. This paper also benefited from useful suggestions from Guillaume Allègre, Mathias André, Gustave Kenedi, Chloé Lallemand, Michaël Sicsic, Louis Sirugue and Sander Wagner. We would also like to thank participants of the Applied Economics Lunch Seminar and PSIPSE seminar at PSE, INSEE Internal Seminar, INED Coffee Seminar, IPP Internal Seminar as well as participants of the 69th Congress of the French Economic Association, of the 2nd World Inequality Lab Conference and of the 2022 LESE conference for their useful remarks. Lastly, we thank the French Council of Economic Analysis and the Ministry of Higher Education and Research for giving us access to data on training costs, and in particular Madeleine Péron and Gabriele Dabbaghian for formatting the data and helping us interpret them.