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School & District Management

How Much Do Mom’s and Dad’s Educations Affect Students’ College Trajectory?

By Sarah D. Sparks — December 21, 2018 2 min read
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Young people’s educational trajectory has become less tied to how far their parents went in school, according to a new study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research, but students in the South have not seen as much progress in educational mobility.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Loyola University Chicago used federal data to track the educational attainment of children in the high school classes of 1982, 1992, and 2004, who had listed their parents’ education background. They identified the percentage of parents and children who graduated from high school, earned some college credit, or earned a college degree, and then gauged how closely children’s educational attainment tracked with their parents’ education.

As other studies have shown, children’s income aligns as closely with their parents’ earning today as it did in the 1970s; a child from the poorest 20 percent of families still has only about one chance in 10 of moving to the top 20 percent of earners by their mid-20s. Education has long been seen as the primary way to break cycles of intergenerational poverty, but recent studies have found, for example, that more low-income students attend college but few earn degrees.

The researchers found that if a student lived in a city that had educational mobility one standard deviation greater than the average, his income mobility also improved by about a half of a standard deviation. “This suggests a close link between the two forms of intergenerational mobility,” the authors note.

From the early 1980s to the mid-2000s, educational attainment improved for both parents and their children, as the charts below sho

While from 1982 to 1992, intergenerational educational mobility shrank, in the next decade children’s educational attainment decoupled from their parents’ education.

But those gains in educational mobility weren’t equally distributed: Across 26 states, the researchers found that states in the Deep South had less education mobility than other states to start with and did not improve as much as other states. The researchers also found that educational mobility fell slightly in states that introduced high school exit exams, but only male students were significantly affected.

Photo Source: Getty
Chart Source: NBER


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A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.