The intergenerational transmission of college selectivity


by Karly Ford and Jason Thompson

Having a parent who graduated from a college or university with selective admissions criteria is associated with a three-fold increase in the likelihood that a child will also attend a selective university.

In our recent article published in Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, we deploy new data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics that code the names of colleges attended by both parents and children. We link these data with a measure of college admissions selectivity provided by the National Center for Education Statistics and the Barron’s Profiles of American Colleges.

Prior work notes the advantages afforded to children of alumni in the admissions process at elite colleges and universities. However, the advantages afforded graduates of selective colleges and universities are not limited to children attending the same institution as their parent.

Rather than only examine legacy admissions at Ivy League schools like previous studies, we examine the intergenerational associations in attaining a selective college education with a sample of parents and children attending four-year institutions spanning the spectrum of admissions selectivity. While there were some legacy cases in our sample, the vast majority were not legacies, so we are confident that attending a similarly selective (rather than the exact same institution) is what is driving our results. For perspective, imagine a selective college as including the Ivy League, top tier liberal arts colleges such as Middlebury or the Claremont Colleges, and prestigious public and private universities such as Northwestern or UCLA.

We find that the child of a parent with a non-selective college degree is no more likely to attend a selective college than a first-generation college goer. That is, the child of a parent who graduated from a selective college is three times more likely to themselves attend a selective college than a child of a parent without a bachelor’s degree. This significant association is found when controlling for race, gender, parental income, parental wealth, and student SAT score.

Intergenerational benefits of selective college attendance

Our findings shed further light on the role of education in processes of social mobility and intergenerational inequality by showing that elites transmit status to their children through the type of institutions accessed in addition to the level of education attained.

The parent-child associations in access to a selective college education are important for our understanding of intergenerational inequality given the disproportionate benefits conferred alongside a selective college attendance. Students attending more selective institutions are more likely to attain a bachelor’s degree and continue their education with an advanced degree. These educational advantages then link with increased returns to occupational status and labor market earnings.

Theories/mechanisms potentially driving this pattern

These findings support two (related) sets of sociological theories: Effectively Maintained Inequality (EMI) and cultural capital. According to EMI, socioeconomically advantaged families deploy resources to secure educational advantages for their children within a given level of education. In this case, we find that parents who themselves graduated from selective colleges seek out the same selective postsecondary education for their children.

However, the parent-child association in college selectivity exists net of socioeconomic status and SAT score. If we were able to look under the hood and see the qualitative stories behind the numbers, there might be a narrative of cultural capital, or the tastes, speech, and status symbols that signal class membership. It may be that parents view a selective degree as a status marker for their family – a signal to others of their relative position in the social hierarchy. Likewise, alumni of selective colleges and universities may hold a greater understanding of how to cultivate a child’s resume to include the academic and extra-curricular merits in order to gain admission to a selective institution.

Karly Ford is an assistant professor in the education policy department at Penn State University. Jason Thompson is a doctoral candidate in sociology at New York University.

Image: Alex Reynolds via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


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