How Closely Do Youth Follow in their Parents’ Footsteps?

KB1Katherine Baird, Associate Professor of Economics, University of Washington Tacoma

All countries care about social mobility. It isn’t easy to measure social mobility, though, and harder still to know how countries compare on this score. Whether any particular policy actually enhances mobility is often anyone’s guess.

My paper Where Do Youth Follow in their Parents’ Footsteps? The College-Going Outcomes of Adults in 19 European Nations undertakes the task of devising one indicator of social mobility, then examining trends in it, before comparing how different European nations stack up against one another.

The paper will be presented in Session 4.2 – Parents-Offspring Relations and Life Satisfaction – at the Third International European Social Survey Conference in Lausanne, Switzerland on Thursday 14 July.

And while the paper is not conclusive about what does or doesn’t enhance mobility, the results show that over the last several decades, the intergenerational transmission of college status has weakened substantially across nineteen European countries.

I also show that the association between this generation’s college status and that of their parents varies considerably across these nations.  It is lowest in Scandinavian countries and largest in eastern and southern European nations. I conclude that the widespread growth in college attendance across Europe over the last several decades has transformed college into an opportunity less for an elite segment of the population, and into one more broadly participated in by those across the socioeconomic spectrum.


The paper examines the nineteen European nations regularly participating in the European Social Survey (ESS), and combines all years containing information on both the respondents’ and their parents’ educational attainment. I then select two cohorts (one of young adults today and another of a prior generation) to assess trends over time in the relationship between parents’ and their children’s college-going status. The younger cohort is then selected to compare countries based on the strength of this association.

To do this I develop an indicator of the degree of association between parents’ and their children’s educational outcomes, and calculate this indicator for the two cohorts in each of the nineteen countries. Specifically, for each country and each cohort, I estimate the relative probability of someone obtaining a college degree based on whether or not his or her parent did as well.


A common way to measure the intergenerational transmission of educational attainment is to compare parents and children based on the number of years they spent in school. In this paper I choose an alternative approach: for each individual and their parents, I identify whether or not he or she gained a college degree.

This particular attainment level is of special interest because whether or not someone attains a college degree has special economic and social implications. And since the decision to attend college is both optional and expensive, the choice lends itself to being one especially influenced by family characteristics.

With this information, I then estimate the probability of children earning a college degree based on their parents’ college-going status. To do this I use a statistical model (logistic regression) which allows me to estimate the relationship between parents’ college outcomes and those of their children. My analysis includes each respondent’s gender, and the college status of both their mother and father. These results then allow me to estimate the probability of obtaining a college degree for those coming from different college-going backgrounds.

The result is an estimate of the relative probability of attending college. In words, the relative probability tells us how probable it is for someone with a college educated father to gain a college degree, relative to someone without a college-educated father. A ratio of two would tell us that on average, the former are twice as likely to become college-educated than are the latter.

Relative probability then, tells us the degree to which college attainment is influenced by family background characteristics. Where the indicator is larger, family background is more important.


Examining changes over time, we find that the importance of a father’s college status as a predictor of their children’s college attendance status (relative probability) has declined noticeably in all nineteen countries. Figure 1 below shows these relative probabilities for each country, for both an older (Generation 2) and recent (Generation 1) generation.


Figure 1: Change Over Time in the Relative Probability of College Attendance Of Those With and Without a College-Educated Father (Females, by Country)

How to read graph: A relative probability of 2 is interpreted as that those with a college-educated father are twice as likely as those without to gain a college degree. Generation 1 are those born in the decade after WWII, and Generation 2 are those born in the 1970s and 1980s.

In Finland, for example, those with a college educated father in the older generation were about 3 times more likely to attend college than were those without a college-educated father. Among the young generation in Finland today, there is near-parity in the college attendance rate of these two demographic groups (the relative probability is 1.18, meaning those with a college-educated father are 18 percent more likely to earn a college degree compared with those without a college-educated father).

You see, too, in Figure 1, that among the younger generation (Generation 2), there is considerable variation in the importance of family background on who attends college. In a final part of the paper, I examine why this might be so.

To do this, I pool the country-level survey data from Generation 2 respondents and link each individual with a number of country-level factors that might explain the pattern of intergenerational transmission we observe.

The results indicate that the relative probability of attaining a college degree does not decrease with larger public subsidies, nor is there any meaningful association with the size of vocational education opportunities in the country, or the degree of variation among countries in the importance of socioeconomic status on youth’s cognitive skills. However, I do find strong evidence that higher rates of college enrollment lead to more equitable college enrollment patterns across countries. A simple scatterplot, shown in Figure 2 below, clearly demonstrates this relationship.


Figure 2: Relative Probability of Gaining a College among Generation 2 (X Axis) and Percent of Generation 2 with a College Degree (Y Axis)


Through this analysis, I conclude that the widespread growth in college attendance across Europe over the last several decades has transformed college into an opportunity less for an elite segment of the population, and into one more broadly participated in by those across the socioeconomic spectrum. The results imply that those countries with larger college-going populations have done more to promote educational mobility than have those with a smaller college-going population. Given the growing importance of educational attainment on economic and life outcomes, one might also conclude that the same holds true for social mobility.

Given the fairly high levels of college attainment already achieved in some countries, one should be careful in extrapolating past trends into any future growth in college enrollments, especially in these countries.

However, the results do suggest that the time is ripe to turn our attention to analyzing the characteristics of who obtains advanced degrees, and how countries differ in this regard. For obtaining an advanced degree may quickly be becoming the new route by which a secure economic future is best obtained.

KB2Katherine Baird is an associate professor of economics at the University of Washington Tacoma specializing in education and comparative social policy. Her recent book Trapped in Mediocrity was published by Rowman and Littlefield. 

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