Who enjoys the opportunity to be better educated than their parents?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Relationship between the share of upward mobility among 25-34 year olds and the likelihood of participating in tertiary education for 20-34 year olds (values in reverse order) 2012.

Over the past decades, education systems have expanded enormously. They provide opportunities for many more students than before to access and succeed in secondary and tertiary education. The rapidly increasing supply of skilled labour in the economy over the past five decades was a crucial ingredient for growth and prosperity, for the modernisation of societies, and for the success of democracy. As more young people became more highly educated than their parents, upward mobility in education became the standard of families’ aspirations and individual ambitions. Families invested a lot of resources and energy into the educational careers of their children in order to unlock a brighter future to which education seemed to be the key.

The most recent Education Indicators in Focus presents some interesting evidence on inter-generational educational mobility, based on data from the Survey of Adult Skills, a product of the OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC). On average across the 24 national or sub-national systems that participated in the survey, 39% of adults have attained a higher level of education than their parents, whereas 12% have attained a lower level. Across generations there is a slight downward trend in educational mobility: 32% of 25-34 year-old adults had a higher level of education than their parents, compared with 43% of 45-54 year-olds.

The vertical axis on the chart above shows that between-country differences in educational mobility among young adults are huge. For example, upward educational mobility in the United States and Japan has slowed, partly because these countries already had high levels of educational attainment. Upward educational mobility is racing ahead in Korea, but also in Ireland, Italy and Spain, where educational attainment, in general, was much lower.

Many policy makers and observers are concerned about slowing social mobility. If social mobility decelerates, the argument goes, the engine moving countries towards greater prosperity and less inequality would start to sputter. Social mobility, of which educational mobility is an important component, is perceived to be an intrinsic feature of cohesive and democratic societies. Therefore, social mobility is thought to be closely linked to equality of opportunity.

But can we detect a connection between upward mobility and equality of opportunity in the data? The horizontal axis of the chart above gives the relative likelihood that 20-34 year-old students will participate in tertiary education among young adults whose parents have a tertiary qualification, compared with young adults whose parents have a below-tertiary qualification. The lower the odds ratio, the more a country is approaching equality of opportunity, regardless of the educational attainment of an individual’s parents. For example, in France, students whose parents are tertiary educated are about 6 times more likely to participate in tertiary education than students whose parents have not attained a secondary education. In the United States, the odds ratio climbs to 6.8, and in Italy to 9.5. In contrast, in Canada, Korea, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, the odds ratio is below 3, thus indicating a fairly equitable access to tertiary education.

But, coming back to our question, the chart also shows no real correlation between upward educational mobility and equality of opportunity to participate in tertiary education. Countries in the lower left quadrant of the chart share greater inequality of opportunity and low educational mobility, while those in the upper right quadrant share greater equality of opportunity and high educational mobility. So they seem to confirm the hypothesis that systems that are more socially selective, in access to tertiary education, go together with less upward educational mobility, and the other way around.

But what of the countries in the upper left and lower right quadrants that seem to contradict the hypothesis? The Nordic countries and Canada combine greater equality of opportunity with moderate upward mobility. These countries already enjoy high levels of educational attainment, so the relative chance that a young person is better educated than his or her parents is lower than in countries where the expansion in higher education occurred more recently. Indeed, data on educational attainment in Education at a Glance show that these countries already have relatively high levels of education among older adults and less upward educational mobility.

France, Italy and Poland and, to a lesser degree, the Flemish Community of Belgium and England, have the opposite profile. In these countries, participation in tertiary education is highly selective, yet there is still relatively fluid upward educational mobility. These countries share a more recent history of educational expansion with below-average educational attainment among older adults. They also probably recruit their tertiary students more from the middle classes than from among the most disadvantaged segment of the population. This is observed in Italy and, to a lesser extent, France.

Decelerating educational mobility doesn’t seem to be a real problem unless it is triggered by particularly selective access to higher education. In this sense, the United States seems to combine the worst of both indicators. But systems that exclude disadvantaged families from education opportunities might realise upward social mobility at the expense of social inclusion.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 28, by Etienne Albiser and Gara Rojas González
Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 28, French version
OECD Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competences (PIAAC)
OECD Skills Outlook 2013
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: www.oecd.org/education/indicators 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators: www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm
Chart source: © OECD (2014), Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators, Indicator A4 (www.oecd.org/edu/eag.htm).

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