Pathways of intergenerational transmission of advantages during adolescence: Social background, cognitive ability, and educational attainment

Wiebke Schulz, Reinhard Schunck, Martin Diewald, Wendy Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Educational attainment in adolescence is of paramount importance for attaining higher education and for shaping subsequent life chances. Sociological accounts focus on the role of differences in socioeconomic resources in intergenerational reproduction of educational inequalities. These often disregard the intergenerational transmission of cognitive ability and the importance of children’s cognitive ability to educational attainment. Psychological perspectives stress the importance of cognitive ability for educational attainment but underemphasize potentially different roles of specific socioeconomic resources in shaping educational outcomes, as well as individual differences in cognitive ability. By integrating two strands of research, a clearer picture of the pathways linking the family of origin, cognitive ability, and early educational outcomes can be reached. Using the population-based TwinLife study in Germany, we investigated multidimensional pathways linking parental socioeconomic position to their children’s cognitive ability and academic track attendance in the secondary school. The sample included twins (N = 4008), respectively ages 11 and 17, and siblings (N = 801). We observed strong genetic influences on cognitive ability, whereas shared environmental influences were much more important for academic tracking. In multilevel analyses, separate dimensions of socioeconomic resources influenced child cognitive ability, controlling parental cognitive ability. Controlling adolescent cognitive ability and parental cognitive ability, parental socioeconomic resources also directly affected track attendance. This indicated that it is crucial to investigate the intertwined influences on educational outcomes in adolescence of both cognitive ability and the characteristics of the family of origin.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2194-2214
JournalJournal of Youth and Adolescence
Early online date25 Jul 2017
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 25 Jul 2017


  • educational attainment
  • academic tracking
  • parental education
  • parents' occupational status
  • parental income
  • cognitive ability
  • genetic and environmental influences


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