The Inheritance of Education

Alex Tabarrik from Marginal Revolution provides a great example of why economists disagree. I strongly suggest you go to their blog to view the graph and read the rest of the post:

Economix posted a graphshowing a strong positive correlation between SAT score and parental income.  Greg Mankiw pointed out that the effect is unlikely to be purely causal because there may be an omitted variable bias, IQ for example.  Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesiasboth attack Mankiw and point to graphs showing that income matters for college completion and enrollment, respectively, holding various achievement scores constant.  Brad DeLong crunches the numbers on IQ and income correlation to estimate that half the effect is due to IQ and half to something else.

All this is good but none if it gets at the heart of the matter because there are a lot of way that heredity/genes could explain the income/education correlation; IQ is only one possible mechanism, personality (e.g. conscientiousness) is another possibility.

The type of evidence that we need to resolve this question is adoption studies.  Fortunately, such studies have been done and indeed I have presented the data before in my post Nature, Nurture and Income.  Let’s do so again.


Now what about education?  Sacerdote looks at that as well.  He doesn’t have a child SAT-score, parent-income correlation but he does find:

Having a college educated mother increases an adoptee’s probability of graduating from college by 7 percentage points, but raises a biological child’s probability of graduating from college by 26 percentage points.

The effect for father’s years of education is even larger; about a ten times larger effect on biological children than on adoptees.  Similarly, parent income has a negligible effect, small and not statistically significant, on an adoptee completing college but an 8 times larger and statistically significant effect on a biological child completing college (Table 4, column 3). 


7 Responses to “The Inheritance of Education”

  1. 1 Deb Snyder August 30, 2009 at 11:35 AM

    This leads me to ask the question: what porportion of people who adopt children are college educated? If the numbers for children that are adopted to attend collge are so much lower than biological children to attend college, is that because the adopted children’s pool is smaller?

    (that was confusing, hope it made sense)

    We all know that, generally speaking, more affluent households have a higher rate of children attending, and graduating from, collge. That is because those families most likely have college educated parents and also have the funding to pay for college for the children.

    Does that meant that families that adopt children are less affluent, as a rule?

  2. 2 Ben Petersen September 1, 2009 at 7:36 AM

    I believe that many children growing up in families that are upper class have more pressure to succeed and follow in their parents footsteps. But there are also the hereditary skills that these children adopted from their parents to work hard and be successful. The study on adoption shows that if you have a positive model to follow, who shows you how to do things right, then you will have a better chance of being successful in whatever you take part in, including SAT tests.

  3. 3 alexandria horton September 1, 2009 at 8:09 AM

    This was so interesting to me. I agree that children whose parents have a higher income are more likely to graduate from college for the mere fact that college is expensive and if the parents can pay for it, it is more likely to happen. On the other hand if the parents are just sitting on trust fund money or lottery money what does that teach the child? that things could possibly be handed to you and therefore they probably wouldn’t strive as hard. If the income of the parents is based on their own college education and strong work ethic, the child will grow up seeing that example whether they are adopted or not, probably causing them to work harder with more pressure and desire for nicer things. What strikes my curiousity is why biological children are more likely to succeed than those adopted. I can say that usually when children are adopted they come from incompetant parents but thats just another study that would have to be done. If the parents that give the child up for adoption are both smart and graduated from college will the child be more likely to graduate college? hmm… very interesting

  4. 4 Gina September 15, 2009 at 9:15 AM

    I agree that this a lot of the time the case, that children who come from wealthy familes tend to do better in school. Some of the reasons would be because these families have high expectations, and more money to spend on eduction. Also, the parents of these families are usually college graduates and encourage their children to follow in their footsteps. Generally when a child has a positive role model to look up to they will do much better.

  5. 5 Kirstie Scott September 17, 2009 at 11:05 PM

    I am definitely going to have to agree with Gina. In high school I attended students parents would literally spend thousands of dollars just to give their children an extra advantage on the SAT. Higher SAT results come from access to more resources, plain and simple.

  6. 6 Kali Hardcastle November 17, 2009 at 8:19 PM

    i think its interesting that the article mentions the fact that a fathers education affects a childs chance of graduating moreso than the mother. i think it is interesting what kirstie said about advantage comes from access to resources. in some ways i can see how this is true. i think that there a lot of factors. however, i think much of a childs college success depends on the student once he or she gets to a certain point. for example, my parents both went to college and have encouraged me to do well in school. however, i definitely did not have access to everything that could have added to my advantage of getting college. also, with the statement about the sat’s that someone mentioned, i think that is relative to the school you apply to because i dont see how that really affects most applications to college.

  7. 7 yvonne December 2, 2009 at 9:49 PM

    I hope it’s not true about the fathers education affects a childs educational success. Because my kids will be in bad shape. I hope my success in college and then to the university will be an encouragement for my children to want to follow in my footsteps. I’ve had the same amount of access to programs to help me be a success so I don’t think money is a factor in the SAT testing or any testing as long as you utilize what is available to you out there and study. Having positive support and positibe role models help alot too.

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