Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 46, Issue 10, pp 2194–2214 | Cite as

Pathways of Intergenerational Transmission of Advantages during Adolescence: Social Background, Cognitive Ability, and Educational Attainment

  • Wiebke SchulzEmail author
  • Reinhard Schunck
  • Martin Diewald
  • Wendy Johnson
Empirical Research


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.


Educational attainment Academic tracking Parental education Parents’ occupational status Parental income Cognitive ability, genetic and environmental influences 


Author Contributions

W.S. conceived of the study, coordinated and drafted the manuscript; R.S. conceived of the study, performed the statistical analyses and participated in drafting the manuscript; M.D. participated in the design and was involved in the theoretical framework; W.J. contributed ideas to study design, interpretation of the data, analysis and drafting the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final version of the manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Ethical Approval

All procedures were in accordance with the ethical standards of the German Science Foundation and approved by Bielefeld University.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all students that participated in the study and their parents.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wiebke Schulz
    • 1
  • Reinhard Schunck
    • 2
  • Martin Diewald
    • 1
  • Wendy Johnson
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of SociologyBielefeld UniversityBielefeldGermany
  2. 2.GESIS TrainingGESIS – Leibniz Institute for Social SciencesKölnGermany
  3. 3.Department of Psychology, Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive EpidemiologyUniversity of EdinburghEdinburghUK

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