Diverse Schools, Diverse Offices?

A new study finds that students who attended more racially integrated high schools are more likely to wind up working with people from different backgrounds.

Stephanie Keith / Reuters

In many places around the country, carefully planned school integration is a thing of the past. Objections over long commutes for children and the costs of busing, as well as debates over academic achievement and racial tension, have meant that many school districts once again look like they might have decades ago: segregated and unequal.

There is a theory—academics call it “perpetuation”—that racial isolation, even in school, can have lasting effects on kids’ lives, shaping their earnings and occupation down the line. While scholars and school districts continue to debate the impact of school segregation on children, a recent paper focuses more narrowly, investigating the link between the racial composition of one’s high school and the the workplace.

In order to do that, the researchers Adam Gamoran, Sarah Barfels, and Ana Cristina Collares used two data sets from the U.S. Department of Education—one that started in 1980 and the other in 1990—that each tracked more than 10,000 high-school students at two-year intervals for about a decade. This allows them to observe respondents as they enter the workforce and report back on factors such as occupation, income, and the racial diversity of their workplace.

For some of the more widely discussed measures of a demographic group’s economic progress—things like employment rates and earnings—the study didn’t find significant correlations between the racial makeup of one’s high school and an individual’s eventual success. But there was a link between the racial composition of a student’s high school and how integrated (or not) their eventual workplace wound up being.

For both cohorts studied, white respondents who went to predominately white high schools were more likely to work in an environment that was made up of coworkers looked like them. And blacks who went to schools that were predominately white also had a higher likelihood of working with more white coworkers. And, similarly, those who attended more diverse schools were more likely to have more diverse offices.

According to the study, the way in which the school was integrated didn’t have any bearing on this finding. Those who attended schools that were more diverse due to busing were just as likely to work in more diverse offices as those whose schools’ diversity was a result of racially integrated neighborhoods.

There was one discrepancy in the work-school link. Nonblack minorities who went to predominately white schools where there were significant levels of racial conflict (as reported by a principal) were less likely to work with predominately white coworkers later in life.

While the researchers didn’t find strong links between high-school composition and income or occupation, they note that the link to workplace diversity is still important. “Racially mixed work environments are an indicator of social cohesion and, along with schools and communities, are central to efforts to reduce racial exclusion,” the authors write. Interactions with a diverse student body may mean that individuals are more likely to live in communities that are more diverse, or more willing and comfortable in racially diverse settings later in life. Of course, simply working in a more diverse environment isn’t enough by itself to shift structural economic inequality, as the researchers note.