“How does education simultaneously help and hinder advancement for individuals?”

This is a question that Brian An, associate professor in Schools, Culture, and Society, addresses through his research, which examines the factors that mitigate or exacerbate inequalities in educational advancement and opportunity, and seeks to find solutions to creating more equitable education systems.

An, who is a trained sociologist, specifically looks at students’ transitions from high school to college, and how aspects like the socioeconomic status of a student’s family, as well as a school’s academic resources and physical location, can affect student outcomes.

He also examines promising solutions and interventions that may help reduce gaps in education among different social groups.

Man in front of bookcase

   Brian An, Associate Professor

“Education is one of those interesting things where it does help people move in their social standings,” says An, “but it can also perpetuate inequalities.”

For example, at schools where dual-enrollment courses are offered, students take more challenging courses offered by local colleges, while also often receiving college credit. An says that dual-enrollment has proven to be more rigorous and beneficial, that students are “more likely to graduate from college,” and that their “grade point averages tend to be higher in college compared with similar students who don’t take dual-enrollment courses,” but he notes that not all students have the same access to these advanced courses.

“Students who come from more affluent backgrounds tend to participate at higher rates,” says An.

An also says that whether or not dual-enrollment or AP courses are even offered can depend on a number of socioeconomic variables, including a school’s resources to hire teachers or even offer the programs. Because many schools’ student bodies correlate with the neighborhood in which they are situated, funding is often linked to a district’s tax bracket; students in lower socioeconomic neighborhoods often attend schools that can’t afford to offer advanced courses.

But even in situations where students of high and low socioeconomic status have access to the same advanced courses, An’s research shows that outcomes still differ.

“Just by having people participating, actually doesn’t help reduce inequality,” says An. “There are many factors that are in play.”

Parental engagement with their children’s school and education is one of those factors.

“One of the things that’s important for school success is parental involvement, and how involved parents are varies,” says An. “It’s surprising how demanding expectations are for volunteering at schools, and this is a huge disadvantage for those who can’t get time off.”

An explains that parents can be key advocates for advanced classes and getting their students into those courses, and for many lower socioeconomic parents, finding the resources and time to be present in schools is often a challenge.

Through his research, An also analyzes the way parents’ social networks can affect their children’s education.

“Those with higher education degrees are more savvy in how they can help their child go through school,” says An. “In working-class families, there is less guidance and resources to help students through higher education—they have aspirations, but not as much information.”

He says that this lack of guidance or even knowledge about educational opportunities available to students is one reason why there is unequal participation in advanced classes among socioeconomic groups.

An says that in many cases, research shows that success is tied to how well students, and at times their parents, collectively navigate the American educational system.

“There is a discrepancy of who is better able to navigate a system than others,” says An. “So the research I investigate looks at that.”

Despite the many differences, there’s one thing that An says parents at all socioeconomic levels share: the desire that their children do well in school and succeed.

Through his work, An is pushing towards solutions to make this possible for all.