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Following in the Parents’ Footsteps

How the social status of the family programs the education of the child


Children from families with high professional and educational status are twice as likely to enter a prestigious university as their peers from low-resource families, HSE University researchers have found. The ‘privileged’ adolescents benefit from strong family attitudes towards a good education, parental investment in their studies and the high academic performance associated with it. At the same time, even when they have good grades, students from poorly educated families do not even try to get into prestigious universities.

The Family Curse

Parents’ socioeconomic status (SES) — their level of education, income and cultural involvement — remains the main predictor of their children’s educational path. The family largely determines a youngster's achievements in school and their desire or reluctance to graduate from high school and pursue higher education.

Moreover, the family background often acts as a limiter. Children are compelled to follow the path of their parents, thus reducing their chances of improving their social status.

According to a study involving approximately 2,000 respondents conducted by HSE Institute of Education researchers Tatiana Khavenson and Tatiana Chirkina, the children of poorly educated parents with limited means often fall into the family rut and do not attend top universities, even if they did well in school.

Conversely, the children of ‘well-endowed’ families strive to enter selective (prestigious and high-quality) universities, even if they have problems with their academic performance.  

In their longitudinal study ‘Paths in Education and Profession,’ Khavenson and Chirkina found that young people from families with high SES have a double advantage over peers from ordinary families: they are one-and-a-half to two times more likely to complete high school and continue their education at selective universities.

Twofold Familial Influence

A family’s SES is connected with a young person’s educational path in two ways, including through its orientation and attitudes.

In families with greater resources, parents invest time, money and effort in their children’s education, with the result that they study better and are more likely to attend university — the primary effect of a higher SES.

The secondary effect is that a higher SES also influences a student's educational choice in favour of either a university or secondary vocational education at a college or technical school. Studies in such countries as the US, Australia and Great Britain have shown that education and wealthy families motivate young people to continue their studies at a good university.

The situation is no different in Russia. And if those students struggle with their grades, they solve the problem with the help of tutors.

‘The primary and secondary effects discourage students from wealthy families from opting for vocational training,’ the researchers explained.

For young people from families with a lower SES, these effects narrow the educational choice and effectively block the social mobility they give others. Moreover, even if students from poorer families study well in school, many choose to study at vocational schools or second-rate universities.

Social Immobility

In fact, access to high-quality education for various social groups has expanded in recent decades. The cohort of current high school students is rather small (stemming from the demographic decline of the early 2000s), leaving plenty of places available in high schools and universities.

‘With such a supply and demand ratio, it could be expected that the greater access to educational opportunities would create opportunities for a meritocratic system in which the choice of a particular path is determined by achievements rather than social status,’ the researchers note. This is not the case, however. Family background often proves a more influential factor than academic performance.

Researchers identified how the primary and secondary effects of family background work and at which stages of education. Students from families with low SES served as the reference group.

Families’ socio-economic status (low, average and high) was determined by a combination of three variables: the number of books at home (fewer than 25, from 26 to 100 and more than 100 — as an indicator of cultural involvement), the mother’s level of education (full secondary, vocational or higher) and the parents’ professional status (taking into account the prestige index of the profession).

Double Advantage

The primary effects are felt most strongly when students enter the 10th grade. The children of wealthy families more often go to high school due to their high academic performance. This is true when comparing students of families with high and low SES values as well as families with average and low SES.

The secondary effects come into play when using parents’ professional status and the number of books in their home as the main SES indicator. Students from families with average socio-economic status are one-and-a-half times more likely than those in the reference group to attend high school rather than college. Students with high SES are twice as likely to attend high school than their peers from poor families.

At the next stage, when choosing between secondary vocational and higher education, differences in primary effects are most evident among the groups with high and low SES: members of the privileged group are one-and-a-half times more likely to continue their education at a university.

The secondary effect of family background is also significant for different social groups. ‘Given the same academic performance, the cultural, educational and socio-economic resources of the family play a significant role, increasing the chances of students from families with many such resources to attend university,’ the researchers noted.

Secondary effects are more pronounced when choosing a university.

Students with average SES have a 150 per cent greater chance of getting into a prestigious university, while those from the group with the most resources are twice as likely to enter such universities than their peers in the group with low SES.

Missed Opportunities and the Perpetuation of Inequality

Students from ordinary families effectively have no advantages other than academic performance, but they often fail to make the most of it. Family background and attitudes apparently overshadow this consideration, with the result that students frequently choose to attend a vocational school or college in order to get a profession and begin working sooner.

As a result, young people from families with an average SES are more likely to go to high school than are their low-income peers.

The children of wealthy parents effectively have no choice whether to attend high school: almost all of them enter the 10th grade. Researchers believe various mechanisms are responsible, including the atmosphere in the family encouraging study, values and attitudes.

By contrast, the 9th grade is a turning point for students from low-SES families: they enter vocational schools at this point more often than members of other groups. They apparently do not believe in or simply know little about the opportunities available to them and do not continue their education as a result.

‘Despite the available places in the 10th grade and the lack of entrance exams, even high-performing students with a low level of educational, cultural and economic capital in the family choose a less prestigious path of vocational education,’ the researchers wrote.

Children essentially follow the path of their parents and social stratification is replicated in education.

At the same time, secondary effects—the direct influence of family status on educational choices—resonate with primary effects and reinforce the inequality that had accumulated due to differences in academic performance.

The Origins of Advantages and Mistakes

Primary and secondary effects change after the 11th grade. Average-SES students have no particular advantage due to family or academic performance when applying to universities. This is partly because less demanding universities accept applicants with lower exam scores.

In addition, the average- and low-SES groups have approximately the same academic performance, equalizing their chances when choosing a university.

For the children of parents with greater resources, however, the primary effects still come into play. Their families are prepared to invest in improving their performance. That is, they use social, cultural and economic resources, hire tutors and encourage the children to take more interest in their studies. Not surprisingly, students from such families are more likely to enter selective universities.

Secondary effects provide advantages to the groups with average and high SES. The factors that help them in applying to universities include:

 their families’ willingness to bear the increased cost of university study;

 the parents’ experience of studying at a university and their understanding of the value of higher education, especially at top universities.

Conversely, parents with low SES often lack a university education and attach less importance to it.

In effect, families themselves often limit their children’s upward mobility and underestimate their chances. The young people do not receive moral support in their choice to continue their education, underestimate their own abilities and do not even try to get into selective universities.

This is often due to a simple lack of information about the differences between universities and job prospects after graduating from different universities. Students are also likely to avoid risks by choosing a university where they are guaranteed admission. An alternate approach is to go first to a vocational school, and then to the university, bypassing the need to take the Unified State Exam.

In Search of Meritocracy

Thus, academic performance only partially determines the educational choice. The families’ resources and attitudes outweigh it. For students from families with average or high SES, low or average academic performance is a signal to engage a tutor and not to leave school after the 9th grade.

Conversely, young people from poor families see low grades as a reason to enrol in a vocational school. Even high academic performance does not guarantee that they will choose to go to university. ‘The values of the family urging them to follow the educational path of the parents’ are too overpowering, the researchers concluded.

For this reason, to provide upward mobility to children of low-resource parents, measures for improving the quality of education and academic performance are not enough, explains Tatiana Khavenson. ‘It is also necessary to work with the subjective reasons in low-SES families: lack of information, personal reasons for avoiding studies at universities, and especially selective ones — that is, with the entire potential pool of reasons associated with secondary effects,’ the researcher explained.

It is necessary to eliminate the ‘non-educational reasons that impede the choice of academic (school and university) paths.’ For example, students could be told about the consequences of receiving this or that level of education and the opportunities that exist for continuing education after graduating from school. It is worthwhile to help young people in identifying their motivation and inclination. ‘Such measures could result in the more effective use of human capital among students with greater academic potential,' the researchers wrote.  

There are also resilient schools that work with difficult contingents and assist students of all types in achieving positive results with the help of additional classes, increased motivation, etc.

It is also good to work with schools that are biased towards children from families with low SES. ‘In another study, we showed that teachers and school administrators perceive parents with a low level of education and culture, and with low-skilled jobs as a signal of low educational opportunities and aspirations,’ said Tatiana Khavenson. ‘They are more pessimistic towards children from families with a low level of education and employed in blue-collar professions, and do not orient them towards obtaining a higher education. They largely think that such children do not need or want it, and cannot obtain it,’ she said.

Schools working with such young people generally encourage them to complete their schooling after the 9th grade. 'This might be unjustified, but families without the experience of studying at a university do not understand that they need to make this decision themselves: instead, they go with the flow,' the researcher said. Nevertheless, the experience of these resilient schools and other schools that feel ‘higher education is never a bad thing’ indicate that ‘effective work in encouraging students to obtain higher education can be carried out regardless of the contingent of the school.’

There is also a third, objective factor — territorial inequality. Students from low-SES families frequently live in villages and small towns, limiting their access to highly selective universities. ‘This calls for serious measures of state support, both for such young people and for the infrastructure of universities,’ the authors of the paper concluded.



Study authors:
Tatiana Khavenson, Research Fellow, Educational Innovations Laboratory, Institute of Education, HSE University
Tatiana Chirkina, Junior Research Fellow, International Laboratory for Education Policy and Innovation Analysis, Institute of Education, HSE University
Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, January 28, 2020