The Sociology of Education: Investigating Big Questions

Yuan He, is the Inaugural Winner of the Bachman Fellowship for Research on Change in American Youth

He, sitting on the ground in the forest

Yuan He, the 2017 Bachman Research Fellow on Change in American Youth

When 26-year-old Yuan He (her first name is pronounced You-en or You-awn), received her law degree in 2013 from Peking University in China, she decided not to immediately practice law, but instead pursue a PhD in sociology. “I was motivated by my continued passion for studying and understanding how social inequality is constructed,” she says. So, leaving her home and family in China’s Yunnan province, she arrived in Michigan in August 2014, knowing that she would find the doctoral program at the University of Michigan (U-M) a challenge. Now in her fourth year of studies in the U-M Department of Sociology, He confides that the program can feel like a difficult marathon. But, she’s been able to keep the finish line in sight with her family’s support, despite the long distance between them. “My parents remind me about patience and perseverance and always advise me not to freak out if, in the short run, I don’t see myself making progress, she says.”

As it turns out, He’s steadfastness and academic endurance has paid off as she also found support through the Jerald and Virginia Bachman Research Fellowship on Change in American Youth. As the inaugural winner of the $5,000 award, which she received in May 2017, she was able to utilize the funds as her summer stipend. “I was able to free myself from summer teaching obligations and focus on research. I also had a wonderful meeting with Jerry and Ginny Bachman,” she says. “I feel extremely grateful for their generous investment in young scholars, and for creating this opportunity for me to explore a topic that has long been close to my heart.” Her benefactors – who initiated the fellowship to get further mileage out of the wide range of data collected in the Monitoring the Future (MTF) project – took equal delight in meeting He. “Both my wife and I found her to be bright, energetic and personable,” says Jerald Bachman. “We’re happy that Yuan now has the advantage of a running start, having already done some analyses using data from the MTF project,” he adds.

MTF was conceived in the late 1960s with the initial data collection in 1975. There is over four decades of data on the lifestyles and values of high school seniors, with later extensions to include adult follow-ups and then surveys of 8th and 10th grade students. Commenting on He’s ambitions, Bachman says, “I was reminded of my own initial research at the U-M Institute of Social Research, more than a half century ago, which exploited existing data that was clustered into different organizational groups.” He adds, “Yuan is making good use of the fact that the MTF 12th grade respondents are surveyed in high schools and thus clustered in ways that can be readily analyzed. This is an advantage considering that she is looking at possible effects of different racial compositions in schools.”

He’s research mainly focuses on race and ethnicity, sociology of education, and social stratification. Specifically, her study supported by the Bachman fellowship utilizes data from MTF, along with census data, to examine whether within-school racial diversity plays a role in shaping youth’s racial attitudes and future school preferences. “The award has definitely facilitated my research progress and helped set the stage for my dissertation,” she says. “My dissertation will explore social mechanisms that may shift or perpetuate existing patterns of racial gaps in education through the lens of residential and school segregation.”

Currently, He is planning to present her findings in two papers that are currently in progress. The first, deals with racial attitudes and is titled “Is School Segregation Self-Perpetuating?” She explains that although past studies show that parental school preferences may have partly contributed to continued school segregation, the opposite side of the casual link – whether school segregation leads to students’ pro-segregation attitudes in the first place – has yet to be sufficiently examined. In the same vein, He is working toward completing another paper named “Mix Together, Expect Better? – The Role of School Socioeconomic Heterogeneity in Shaping Students’ Educational Expectations.”

He strongly believes that her efforts have the potential to contribute to literature on both “school effects” (the long-standing sociological debates around whether school context matters) and the formation of racial attitudes. She is confident that some of her findings will also shed light on the long-term effect of existing school segregation. “For instance, ongoing school racial segregation might have the tendency to perpetuate itself in the long run if, as my primary analysis implies, students who attended segregated institutions are more likely to think it’s more desirable to send their future children to segregated schools,” He says.

Given the resurgence of school racial segregation and rising class-based school segregation (partially due to continued residential segregation and increasing income segregation), He stresses that it is especially important to revisit the role of school racial diversity and understand mechanisms that might influence future trends. “In an ideal world, even for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, education can be an empowering tool that creates opportunities for growth and upward social mobility. It should be able to free people from structural societal limitations, such as existing income gap and racial inequality,” He says. “However, in the real world, an individual’s access to educational opportunities and resources is largely determined – or at least affected by their race and class.”

She points to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case as an example of the real world timeliness of her research. “Although we have conquered the barriers of school racial segregation legally more than six decades ago, unfortunately school segregation and unequal distribution of educational resources continue to shape the reality we live in,” He asserts. That said, there are some very important questions she is striving to address in the public interest: Who is most likely to bear the brunt of school segregation? Who is becoming more disadvantaged in the arena of education? And, who is being left behind because of existing residential and school segregation? These big questions are driven by He’s bigger desire for answers regarding how educational institutions – often perceived as the “great equalizers” – (re)produce inequalities. “I strongly believe that education can be, or should be, transformative,” she says, “but my training has made me mindful that existing social institutions might maintain or exacerbate existing disparities in educational outcomes, and I aim to understand the social mechanisms that may lead to inequalities within the great equalizers.”