To Whom Do You Refer? Studying the Effect of Status on Educational Inequality

44 Pages Posted: 21 Jun 2022

See all articles by William Foley

William Foley

Charles III University of Madrid

Date Written: June 9, 2022


The literature on educational inequality has established that (i) lower class students are less likely to attend university than their higher class counterparts, even when adjusting for differences in academic performance; and (ii) lower class students benefit academically when their school peers are higher class. In this paper, I suggest that “status” – i.e. stereotypes about the competence of high and low status groups – is a powerful mechanism explaining (i) the gap in university attendance, and, that when they are taken into account, they can either nullify or reverse the (ii) beneficial effect of having higher class student peers. Lower status social groups are disadvantaged by stereotypes assuming they are of lower competence – e.g. lower class students are stereotyped as less competent – and could plausibly explain a substantial part of the class gap in university attendance. However, studying the effect of status “in the wild” is difficult, since it is hard to identify contexts where status varies and yet the objective characteristics determining status (e.g. income, occupational background) do not. I make use of the insight that subjective social class is influenced by an individual’s reference group to identify an educational setting where status may vary but objective class characteristics don’t. I argue that when a lower class student is placed in a higher class classroom, they are seen as subjectively more lower class, and hence subjectively lower status, than they would be if placed in a lower class classroom. Hence, being placed in a higher class setting reduces expected academic ability, and hence reduces the lower class students likelihood of attending university – a prediction at odds with the positive peer effect mechanism. I present two studies, one applying a quasi-experimental design to observational data, and the other applying a vignette method, that provide evidence that status is a consequential factor in determining educational inequality.

Keywords: educational inequality, social class, status, reference group, stereotypes, experimental methods

Suggested Citation

Foley, William, To Whom Do You Refer? Studying the Effect of Status on Educational Inequality (June 9, 2022). Available at SSRN: or

William Foley (Contact Author)

Charles III University of Madrid ( email )

Calle Madrid 126
Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (room 15.2.42)
Getafe, Madrid 28903

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