Working Paper

The intergenerational effect of educational expansion: Diminishing academic achievement among children with university-educated parents

Abundant research has documented the effect of educational expansion in one cohort on educational inequality and occupational returns in that same cohort. We make a novel contribution by examining whether the expansion of university education among parents affects their children’s academic achievement. We argue that expansion reduces selectivity in attaining university education, so that university graduates are gradually a less selected group in traits relevant to their future children’s achievement. Moreover, educational expansion is likely to reduce occupational returns for graduates, increasing the proportion of overqualified university-graduated parents. As a result of both factors, the average achievement of children from university-educated families should diminish with the educational expansion among parents, which may lead under certain likely conditions to lower levels of inequality in children’s achievement. Using data from 30 countries participating in 7 waves of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), we show that the achievement of students from university-educated families notably decreases with the proportion of university-educated parents. The relationship is also negative in non-university-educated families, but half as strong, resulting in a negative association between expansion among parents and inequality among children. We find that part of that negative relationship operates through the increasing overqualification and diminishing cultural capital of university-educated parents.

By Manuel T. Valdés, Fabrizio Bernardi and Ilaria Lievore.

The average academic achievement of students from university-educated families decreases with the expansion of university education among their parents.

The achievement of students from non-university-educated families is also negatively related to expansion in the parents’ generation, but the relationship is weaker. Consequently, the higher the proportion of university-educated families, the lower the inequality in academic achievement among children.

Two mechanisms explain part of these associations: the increasing overqualification of university-educated parents resulting from the lower occupational returns to the university degree, and the decreasing endowment of cultural capital as a result of the weaker selection into university education.