In this paper, we analyse social inequalities along the horizontal dimension of education in Italy. More precisely, we focus on the role of family background in completing specific fields of study at both secondary and tertiary levels of education. To mitigate the limitations of the traditional sequential model, we construct a typology of educational paths based on two axes: the prestige of one’s choice of high school track (academic or vocational) and the labour market returns of the university field of study in terms of monthly net income (high or low). We identify four paths: academic-high, academic-low, vocational-high, and vocational-low. We investigate the influence of social inequalities on educational path using data from the Istat “Survey on the transition to work of University graduates” regarding cohorts of university graduates in 1995, 1998, 2001, 2004 and 2007. Results obtained from multinomial logistic regressions confirm predictions based on rational action theory. We find that family background, defined in terms of parental education, is positively and significantly associated with the completion of the most advantageous educational path. Moreover, we find that high-performing students from lower socio-economic backgrounds show a higher probability of completing the vocational-high path. This result suggests that a vocational upper secondary degree could be perceived as a sort of safety option for students from less wealthy families, which allows them to invest in the most lucrative and risky fields at university.
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Take note that the Italian law states that compulsory schooling lasts until the age of 15, but there is also a compulsory training that includes the first 2 years of upper secondary school. In other words, a student can leave the upper secondary school at age 15, but he/she is obliged to enrol in a training course for at least another year.
There are a few notable exceptions in certain fields; private universities, such as Bocconi for economics and the Scuola Normale for maths, are perceived to be more prestigious than the other universities.
As a robustness check, we have run our analysis on all the different subpopulations separately, finding similar results for both master’s and single-cycle graduates, and between these and the pre-reform graduates. Even if the results for bachelor’s graduates are different, the results show that they do not move away from the general pattern. The robustness checks are available in the supplementary materials.
A complete set of descriptive statistics is reported in the Supplementary Materials.
Another option is to consider the occupational returns in a dynamic way by letting it vary over time. As seen in the supplementary materials, however, even in this case the main results of the paper are confirmed.
E.g., where the highest educational degree of the father is a high-school diploma and the highest educational degree of the mother is a university degree, parental education will be the mother’s education qualification.
We do not consider social class as the main explanatory variable in our analysis, as the information about parental occupation is supplied in a way that does not permit the construction of a detailed class scheme. To avoid possible problems of miss-classification, we code occupation in a few categories and use it only as a control variable.
The complete models are reported in the supplementary materials.
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The authors would like to thank Antonio Schizzerotto, Dalit Contini, Camilla Borgna, Giulia Assirelli, Elisa Forestan and Giampiero Passaretta for their useful suggestions and comments on a previous version of this paper.
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Vergolini, L., Vlach, E. Family background and educational path of Italian graduates. High Educ 73, 245–259 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10734-016-0011-2