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Paper 118: Graduating and gradations within the middle class: the legacy of an elite higher education

Sally Power and Geoff Whitty

This paper explores the significance of an elite higher education for occupational differentiation within the middle class. The paper is based on longitudinal research derived from a cohort of thirty-year olds whom we have been following since the start of their secondary education when they were deemed to be ‘destined for success’.  The large majority have subsequently graduated and are in professional and managerial occupations. However, even within this picture of overall ‘success’, there are within-cohort differences which highlight the significance of an elite education on subsequent destinations. Those who went to an elite university were generally in higher level occupations and on higher salaries than those who went to less prestigious, and particularly post-1992, universities. Although this may suggest the fine-grained workings of a meritocracy at the ‘top end’, the success of private schools in sending their pupils to Oxbridge (with lower A level results than state schools) and the relatively higher earnings of privately-schooled non-graduates indicate an enduring school sector effect. Indeed, the difference in earning outcomes within our sample of respondents leads one to question the economic value of obtaining degrees from less prestigious universities and colleges of higher education.

Paper 118: Graduating and gradations within the middle class: the legacy of an elite higher education, Cardiff School of Social Sciences, Series Working Paper Series, September(2008), ISBN 978-1-904815-81-5