Race, Gender, and Cohort Differences in the Educational Experiences of Black and White Americans


Federal legislation and judicial intervention led to significant transformation in the U.S. education system during the early to mid-twentieth century. These changes may differentiate older adults in their experiences of aging, particularly at the intersection of race, gender, and cohort, but are not well documented among current cohorts of older adults. Our study addresses this gap by providing rich, descriptive information on the educational experiences of U.S. adults who attended primary or secondary school between 1915 and 1977. We used data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS), a nationally representative, prospective study of U.S. adults over age 50 years. The HRS collected information on respondents’ schooling history and experiences through a Life History Mail Survey (LHMS). We restricted our sample to age-eligible HRS-LHMS respondents who self-identified as non-Hispanic White or non-Hispanic Black and completed at least 75% of their primary or secondary schooling in the U.S. (n = 10,632). Educational experiences, defined as pre-k to post-secondary education, varied across cohort, regardless of race or gender. Greater course offerings, improvements in learning support, and increasing exposure to integrated schools occurred across successive cohorts. We found the highest rates of enrollment in college preparatory curriculum and foreign-language courses as well as diagnosed learning differences in cohorts born after 1948. Among White adults, many of the gender differences in educational experiences documented in the oldest cohort were still found among the most recent cohort. Few gender differences, however, were found for Black adults regardless of cohort. Conversely, most race inequities in educational experiences persisted. Such inequities may be an important source of continued differences in experiences of aging observed across demographic groups.

The full study can be viewed at Population Research and Policy Review

Walsemann, K. M., Fisk, C. E., Farina, M. P., Abbruzzi, E., & Ailshire, J. A. (2023). Race, gender, and cohort differences in the educational experiences of Black and White Americans. Population Research and Policy Review42(6), 86.

Sign up for Schaeffer Center news