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Different degrees of career success: social origin and graduates’ education and labour market trajectories

Most research on social inequalities in higher education (HE) graduates’ labour market outcomes has analysed outcomes at one or two points in time, thus providing only snapshots of graduates’ occupational destinations. This study contributes to the existing literature by examining the education and labour market trajectories of degree holders across their life course and how these trajectories vary by social class of origin. Using data from the 1970 British Cohort Study, we assess the degree of social inequalities in the chance of following more or less advantaged pathways from age 16 up to the age of 42 and the extent to which these inequalities are explained by differences in higher education experiences. Three main questions are addressed in this study:

  1. What are the typical education and labour market pathways followed by HE graduates?
  2. How do these pathways vary by parental social class? 
  3. Do differences in graduates’ HE experiences (i.e. age of graduation, the field of study and institution attended, degree class achieved and postgraduate studies) explain class-of-origin differences?


This paper was published in the Advances of Life Course Research on 19 September 2020 and can be accessed via the link below:

Journal article: Different degrees of career success: social origin and graduates’ education and labour market trajectories

Types of inequalities

Sources of inequalities: social class of origin

Inequalities of outcomes: education and labour market trajectories (including further education, unemployment, inactivity, social classes of destination).


We analyse data from the 1970 British Cohort Study and employ sequence analysis, followed by cluster analysis, to identify HE graduates’ typical trajectories. To investigate differences in the sequences followed by HE graduates from various social classes of origin we used the entropy index as it captures the diversity of states at a given time across the observation window. Finally, a series of binary logistic regression models was used to estimate the probability of belonging to each cluster for graduates from different social origins. The results from these models are presented using average marginal effects (AMEs) to enable comparison across models (Mood 2010).


The results show that graduates from lower social classes of origin have more diverse and less stable trajectories, are less likely to enter top-level jobs in their 20s and more likely to enter and remain in lower social classes than their more socially advantaged counterparts. The age at which people graduate from HE emerges to be a key factor in explaining some of these patterns. Interestingly, HE factors - such as class of degree, fields of study and type of university attended - only partially explain social class differences. Our research provides new insights into the dynamic nature of inequalities among graduates showing that not only does the final destination matter but also the timing and sequencing of spells within the trajectories are important.   

Policy implications

In policy terms, our findings indicate that achieving a HE qualification does not fully act as an equalizer of life chances and (dis)advantages perpetuate also among graduates. This confirms that promoting access to HE to people from disadvantaged social backgrounds does not automatically translate into equal access to top-level jobs. Our finding that timely HE graduation is associated with more successful transitions into top-level jobs calls for policies that support disadvantaged students to graduate early in life, e.g. providing grants to help them financially and mentoring throughout their HE studies.

For further information contact Dr Adriana Duta

Research Team

Professor Marita Jacob
Dr Francesca Fiori
Senior Research Fellow