Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2016

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

David S. Brown

Second Advisor

Andy Baker

Third Advisor

Sarah Sokhey

Fourth Advisor

Jeff Harden

Fifth Advisor

Tania Barham


Education is broadly recognized as a human right and is critical to the achievement of other individual and social goods. Yet despite widespread recognition of the importance of education, access is still very uneven. In some countries, education is available to all on a fairly equal basis, while in others, only the elite are educated. What explains this variation? While much attention has been paid to income inequality, education inequality is less understood. Drawing from theories on human capital and income inequality, I hypothesize that education inequality is shaped by the forces of modernization, globalization, and democratization. I construct a new measure of education inequality and test my hypotheses using time-series cross-national data. I also analyze the case of Mexico, using original survey data. Finally, I look at disparities in quality of education. I find that the relationship between modernization, democratization, globalization, and education inequality is complex. Globalization is only related to declining education inequality for labor abundant countries. For capital abundant countries, globalization is associated with increased education inequality. This extends the classic Heckscher-Ohlin model beyond the realm of income. These findings support the argument that trade should be beneficial to developing countries, which are often labor abundant, but also lend fuel to trade critics, by showing that trade may sometimes exacerbate inequality. Democratization is not found to have a consistent relationship with education inequality. Instead, what matters is whether the regime depends on the poor for political support. Contrary to earlier work that has been almost universally optimistic about the positive effects of democracy for both education and equality, the findings point to the need to examine whether democracies are set up to represent the needs of the poor and disadvantaged or are simply another tool used by elites to further their own interests. Finally, while inequality in years of education is declining, disparities in quality of education have been increasing. Counter to the expectations of modernization theory, which predicts that broader access to education will follow naturally as part of modernization, this suggests that elites are finding ways to reassert hierarchical social structures and perpetuate inequality.