April 12, 2012
By Dan Berrett
One young person in four failed to reach his or her parents' level of postsecondary education, according to a study of American youth in 2007, and the phenomenon is one form of "downward mobility."
While researchers have traditionally seen class, race, aptitude, and the level of parental education as the chief explanations for academic success (or lack thereof), a new study being presented at the American Educational Research Association's annual meeting in Vancouver this weekend suggests paying attention to a powerful influence that is less examined: the tone and substance of family relationships.
"It appears families may be able to 'guard' against downward mobility by engaging in certain kinds of interactions with their children," Elizabeth Dayton, a doctoral student in sociology at the Johns Hopkins University, writes in her paper, "Falling Short of College." These interactions include family conversations about educational goals, supportive and engaged parenting, and involvement in young people's academic and social lives.
While acknowledging that parental education and family income can predict educational attainment, Ms. Dayton sought to answer why children of college-educated parents fall short of their parents' level of education. One-third of young people have parents who earned baccalaureate degrees, she writes, and the share of young people from this group who achieved the same or higher level of education as their parents narrowly exceeded those who did not.
Among the 18 percent of young people whose parents attended college but did not earn a bachelor's degree, half went to college, while the other half ended their education at high school, if not earlier.
Her point was not, she writes, that everyone must go to college. Instead, she argues, it is useful to understand why so many young people are following "seemingly surprising downwardly mobile educational paths," especially amid larger efforts to create a more educated citizenry.
Looking at 'Social Capital'
To analyze the dynamics of educational achievement among parents and their children, Ms. Dayton focused on the notion of "social capital." As articulated by the late sociologist James S. Coleman, social capital describes the assets that accrue to young people as a result of warm and trusting relationships, as distinct from strictly financial and demographic advantages.
Ms. Dayton analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. In 1997, researchers from the U.S. Department of Labor began following nearly 9,000 people between the ages of 12 and 16, and they have continued to interview their subjects every year, mostly in-person.
Several questions in the survey are designed to identify the tone and substance of family relationships, or the presence or absence of social capital in young people's lives. For example, young people are asked whether they feel supported by their parents and how often their parents help them do things they feel are important, or whether parents cancel plans for no good reasons and blame their children for their problems. The young people are also asked how involved their parents are with their lives, as revealed by whether parents know the children's friends, the friends' parents, teachers, and whereabouts after school.
The result, Ms. Dayton found, is that frequent conversations about young people's education and goals reduced by about one-third the odds that a young person would fall short of his or her parents' education. Engaged parenting, described as both strict and responsive, as opposed to permissive, lowered by more than half the odds that a child of parents who attended some college would not reach the same level of education. The presence of two parents in the home also had a major effect.
The significant influence of family relationships on college-going also held true when controlling for the young person's aptitude, as measured on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery.
"While background characteristics and aptitude are widely analyzed as fundamental influences on youth outcomes, family relationships are far more often missing from analyses," Ms. Dayton writes.
And, when parents place too much focus on providing material benefits to their children, it can have a negative effect, Ms. Dayton writes, referring to previous research. "While income is generally beneficial for educational attainment, if it comes at the cost of shared family time, attainment may be harmed."