Intergenerational Educational Mobility in Comparative Perspective: Persistent Inequality in Educational Attainment and its Institutional Context

Pfeffer, Fabian
Working paper no. 2007-09


The provision of equal educational opportunities is a central political goal in all modern societies. Yet research repeatedly shows that educational opportunities continue to be distributed very unevenly in all countries. Therefore, the question is not whether family background and educational outcomes are related but to what degree they are. This latter question then invites a comparative perspective. That is, does social inequality in education differ across time, sex, or countries? If yes, which institutional and macro-structural characteristics can explain differences in educational inequality?

I conceptualize educational inequality as the association between individuals’ and their parents’ highest educational level attained. The cross-classification of these two attributes builds the basis for log-linear and log-multiplicative models of intergenerational mobility in educational attainment. Drawing on data from the “International Adult Literacy Survey” (IALS), I compare educational mobility processes across twenty industrialized nations.

The results show that educational mobility has remained stable across the 20th century and is largely sex-blind in virtually all countries. However, nations differ widely in the extent to which parents’ education influences their children’s educational attainment. One central contribution of this paper, then, is the ranking of nations along their degree of educational mobility. This measure of inequality in educational attainment is then shown to be associated with the institutional structure of the education system: Rigid systems with dead-end educational pathways are a hindrance to the equalization of educational opportunities, especially if the sorting of students occurs early in the educational career. Other institutional characteristics, like the degree of standardization, the prevalence of private schools, and the openness of the post-secondary sector do not appear to exert notable influences on educational mobility.