Me, You, and Everyone We Know

Today I inquired of my Sociology of the Life Course (300-level) students: How many Canadian adults (ages 25+) have University degrees (Bachelor’s or higher)?

Their starting estimate was close to 80%.  From there I took descending bids, like a backward auction, until I had guesses of 72% and 60%, with one brave soul going as low as 40%.  Then I revealed the estimates from Statistics Canada.  And that’s when I heard an audible *gasp!* (it made my day, really).

As of 2009, the figure was THIRTY-ONE PERCENT.  And that’s only for 25-39 year olds (it would be much lower if we included older folks).

I can sympathize with my students here.  I actually have kind of a hard time absorbing this figure myself.  I keep checking and re-checking it against census records.  Why are my students so wrong?  Why am I so skeptical?  I’d suggest it pretty much comes down to exposure.  When me, you, and (almost) everyone we know has a university degree, we tend to take the next step of generalizing to all of Canada.  “After all, if everyone at UBC has or is getting a degree…”  Yeah.  It doesn’t work that way.

The Statistics Canada estimates are also cool for another reason.  They contain information about parental degree attainment.  And it really, really matters.  More than half of children who have at least one parent with a university degree will also earn a university degree.  Fewer than a quarter of children without a university graduate for a parent will earn a degree.Canadian-Univ-Degrees

This (in conjunction with reading the much-cited work of American sociologist Annette Lareau), helps establish how social reproduction works.  And the students get it.  They just don’t necessarily get, until it’s put in front of them, how small the university educated middle class is.  Or how exceptional their own experiences are.  And why should they?  They’re surrounded by other people just like them – at least in the key respect of educational attainment.  What’s more, me, you, and everyone they know also usually extends to their parents.  Most of them have university degrees too.

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