I have noticed the phenomenon in my daughters and their friends: Highly educated women from elite schools who decide to take a break from their careers to stay home and raise their small children. Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt, has put numbers to these anecdotes with a research paper entitled “Opting Out among Women with Elite Education.” It is a fascinating new window onto the development of the new upper class that I described in Coming Apart.
Hersch uses a large database, the 2003 National Survey of College Graduates, that lets her identify 1,830 women who graduated from “tier 1” educational institutions — in effect, the Ivies and other high-prestige universities like Duke and Stanford — and compare them with women who graduated from less elite schools. When women with and without children of all ages are lumped together, the graduates of tier 1 schools are employed only slightly less often than their less privileged sisters. But as soon as Hersh separates out women with children from those without, it becomes obvious that women from tier 1 schools are significantly more likely to be home with the kids than the others — 68% of mothers from the tier 1 schools were employed, compared to 76% of those from the other schools.
A lot depends on the kind of degree that a married woman with children has obtained. If she is a physician, has a PhD, or has an MA in education (i.e., is probably a K-12 teacher), she is as likely to be employed as graduates from lower-tier schools. But those degrees involve only 24% of mothers who graduated from tier 1 schools. Those with law degrees are 9 percentage points less likely to be employed than graduates from lower-tier schools; those with MBAs are 16 percentage points less likely to be employed, and the largest single group, those with just a BA, are 13 percentage points less likely to be employed.
These numbers shouldn’t make sense. Who gets into tier 1 schools? Not just highly able women, but also women who are ambitious enough to want to be in those schools. It is plausible that they would be more likely, not less, to continue their careers after they have children than women who, on average, are surely less intellectually able and probably less intensely ambitious than the tier 1 women.
Hersch also documents that women from tier 1 schools are more likely than other women graduates to have parents with college educations and to be married to men holding jobs that require a college education. Add to that some other characteristics of women who have graduated from elite schools that Hersch does not address but are established by other sources: Those with children are almost always married. They are not only married to men with college educations, they are likely to be married to men who have also graduated from elite schools. Their family incomes are likely to be high. They tend to live in places with the best schools (or send their children to the best schools).
So Professor Hersch has established that the next generation of children who have everything from genes to family structure to money going for them are also more likely to have a stay-at-home mom — and not just any mom, but one who has been sifted through the micron-fine mesh of the admissions process at elite schools and been judged to have both the IQ and other sterling qualities that gained her entrance, and who is devoting that package of exceptional abilities to the upbringing of her children. Lucky kids. And a new upper class polished to an ever-shinier gloss.