Despite the special role of tenure-track faculty in society, training future researchers and producing scholarship that drives scientific and technological innovation, the sociodemographic characteristics of the professoriate have never been representative of the general population. Here we systematically investigate the indicators of faculty childhood socioeconomic status and consider how they may limit efforts to diversify the professoriate. Combining national-level data on education, income and university rankings with a 2017–2020 survey of 7,204 US-based tenure-track faculty across eight disciplines in STEM, social science and the humanities, we show that faculty are up to 25 times more likely to have a parent with a Ph.D. Moreover, this rate nearly doubles at prestigious universities and is stable across the past 50 years. Our results suggest that the professoriate is, and has remained, accessible disproportionately to the socioeconomically privileged, which is likely to deeply shape their scholarship and their reproduction.
Professors play a unique role in the knowledge economy: they both train the next generation of thinkers and generate new scholarship, which informs national policy and advances scientific discoveries. But the professoriate has never represented the sociodemographic characteristics of the population it serves. While the diversity of the educational pipeline has been extensively studied in terms of race and ethnicity1,2,3, and the links between parental income and occupational status, and their children’s educational attainment are well documented4,5,6,7, there exist comparatively few systematic studies on the socioeconomic roots of professors or how their socioeconomic origins interact with institutional prestige. Analyses of the socioeconomic backgrounds of faculty will both improve our understanding of the social reproduction of the highest levels of academic attainment and scientific influence, and provide a quantitative basis for studies of how representational diversity influences which and what kind of discoveries are made.