Educational certificates are the main allocation principle for occupation chances in today’s western societies (e.g., Blossfeld 1989; Solga 2005; Hillmert and Mayer 2004). Higher educational certificates are associated with lower risks of becoming unemployed (Reinberg and Hummel 2007) and positively affect the chances of obtaining a privileged occupational position (Müller 1998; Hillmert 2001; Klein 2011). A century ago, it was standard practice to leave school in Germany after the ninth grade (Volks‑/Hauptschulabschluss). Educational reforms, already starting at the end of the nineteenth century (Sawert 2018) but accelerating in the 1960s, were aimed at a general educational upgrade of the overall population. The purpose of these reforms was to increase the number of potential students and to reduce social inequalities in access to higher educational tracks (Dahrendorf 1965; Becker 2007; Maaz 2006). These reforms were effective in increasing the number of pupils who finish school with the Abitur (equivalent to A levels), making it the most common school-leaving certificate in Germany since 2011 (Authoring Group Educational Reporting 2018). Whereas the traditional three-track structure in Germany closely linked school tracks with school-leaving certificates, this structure was loosened and alternative ways to the Abitur via non-Gymnasium school tracks were strengthened. Some German states further differentiated their non-Gymnasium tracks; the majority, however, reduced their school system mainly to two tracks; one school track beside the Gymnasium that is non-academic but opens up the option of attaining the Abitur too (Becker et al. 2016). Within the course of the quantitative expansion of upper secondary education, previously excluded, educationally less privileged social groups have been included in upper secondary education.Footnote 1 Although educationally less privileged families tend more toward choosing vocational tracks to the Abitur than educationally privileged families (Maaz 2006; Schindler 2014), the inclusion of lower socio-economic strata diluted the social selectiveness and exclusivity of the Gymnasium Abitur to a large degree. In this context, authors (e.g., Blossfeld et al. 2015) argue that educational inequalities shifted from attaining an upper secondary degree toward tertiary educational differences, e.g., attending university.
Research focusing on these vertical differences in the acquisition of certificates at different vertical levels in the educational systems often refers to the theory of Raymond Boudon (1974) to explain educational background effects. The basic argument goes that pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds perform less well because they have lower cultural capital transmitted by their parents (Bourdieu 1984) and are less supported by their parents, resulting in fewer competencies (e.g., Stubbe et al. 2016). Hence, owing to their lower educational performance, students from less privileged backgrounds are more likely to drop out at educational transition points (primary effects). Beyond that, even if children from lower socio-economic strata perform equally well in the educational system as their more privileged peer students, they still have a lower probability of continuing school (secondary effects). This is because lower socio-economic strata perceive the costs of additional schooling to be higher and are more likely to finance their studies with student loans. Furthermore, they have on average lower educational aspirations (Authoring Group Educational Reporting 2018). However, after decades of educational expansion, attaining neither an upper secondary nor a university degree is distinct enough at the top of the educational hierarchy. Research by Bachsleitner et al. (2018) on transitioning to still exclusive doctoral programs after finishing tertiary education shows educational background effects. Children from families in which at least one parent has a doctoral degree have a 21.6 percentage points higher probability of transitioning to a doctoral program. This effect is mainly explained by performance-related indicators and factors in the educational biography (e.g., subject choice).
In his theory on cultural reproduction, Bourdieu demonstrates how parents transmit cultural capital to their children, how cultural capital is converted into success by the children in the educational system, and how educational success is finally converted into socioeconomic status, resulting in the intergenerational transmission of privilege. Elaborating on the mechanisms of how status is intergenerationally transmitted, Jaeger and Breen (2016) differentiate between passive socialization and active parental investments: cultural capital is on the one hand transmitted from parents to children by nonreflected components of socialization (e.g., exposure to cultural objects in daily life) and by active investments, on the other hand, where parents “choose whatever amount of investment they think will yield the highest return for a given cost” (Jaeger and Breen 2016, p. 1090). Hence, in times of educational expansion, privileged parents have to look for a diverse set of strategies, e.g., educational distinction via horizontal educational decisions. In the following, we elaborate on these strategies and our expectations of how educational background affects the probability of following distinctive educational tracks.
Horizontal Distinction in Upper Secondary Education in Germany
In addition to vertical educational differentiation, socioeconomically privileged parents try to ensure educational advantages for their children through educational choices within the same level of education. Lucas’ theory of effectively maintained inequality states that educationally privileged parents secure educational advantages for their families whenever possible; if a particular level of education is no longer exclusive, they ensure their advantage through qualitatively better options within that educational level (Lucas 2001, p. 1652). We argue that in addition to different tracks in stratified curricula, within-track differentiation, e.g., via stays abroad and school subject choice, constitutes an important means for distinction. Especially higher educated parents not only have preferences for specific tracks but also the specific school of their children, as these families are more aware of differences in the quality of schools than lower educated parents (Klinge 2016, p. 228 f.). Furthermore, they are not only more aware of quality differences between different schools, but more highly educated parents also have more capital, which allows them to realize their school preferences, either by active interventions at schoolFootnote 2 (Dumont et al. 2014, 2019) or by utilizing economic capital to access, e.g., private schools.
In countries such as the UK, private schools are a traditional element of the educational system. Attending them is often socially exclusive and graduating from them is associated with better chances in the labor market (see Jackson 2009). In Germany, private schools are on the rise: the number of children attending a private school nearly doubled between 1992 and 2019 from 4.8 to 9.2% (Federal Statistical Office 2019). In 2018, every eighth upper secondary school in Germany was privately funded (Klemm et al. 2018). Although the private schools offer a diverse set of programmatic orientations, e.g., international education or Waldorf education, they have in common that they usually constitute a socially selective learning environment. This is partly the result of the economic hurdle produced by tuition fees, which are rather low in comparison with internationally, and partly because of the programmatic orientation on, for example, transnational education or, for example, Waldorf education, which is especially valued by privileged families with its strong focus on arts and free learning methods (Liebenwein et al. 2012, p. 23 ff.). Because of the resulting social composition effects (Dumont et al. 2013), socially selective schools constitute a learning environment that enhances skill accumulation, thereby offering better educational chances to students who attend private schools. However, Klemm et al. (2018) demonstrate that students at private schools do not differ in their competencies from students at public schools when controlling for confounding variables (see also Hoffmann et al. 2019). As private schools are relatively exclusive and parents might ascribe positive skill development to attendance at private schools (see Thomas and Thomas 1928), we expect to find a positive effect of educational background on attendance at a private school.
Another specific type of upper secondary school in Germany are so-called humanistic Gymnasiums, where pupils must learn Latin from grade five onward and sometimes additionally ancient Greek from grade eight onward. Humanistic Gymnasiums have a long tradition in German educational history. When the Abitur exam was formalized in Germany in 1812, pupils had to learn Latin and ancient Greek. The Gymnasium at that time spent more than 40% of the learning time on these classical languages (Herrlitz et al. 2008). The humanistic Gymnasium was a highly exclusive and socially selective school type and educational reforms leading to educational expansion did not just increase the number of pupils attending a Gymnasium but were associated with a programmatic shift from humanistic to more labor market-oriented education (see Sawert 2018). Today’s humanistic Gymnasiums still constitute socially selective learning environments (Baumert et al. 2010) and people who know Latin are ascribed more general and cultural education (Gerhards et al. 2019). Graduating from a humanistic Gymnasium increases the probability of getting into a leading position in the labor market (Sawert 2016). In contrast to private schools, attendance at a humanistic Gymnasium is usually free of charge, as these are most commonly public schools. However, the curriculum with its focus on classical languages might serve as a hurdle for families who are more oriented toward acquiring knowledge in school that is useful in the labor market, e.g., modern foreign languages. Following Bourdieu (1984, 1990), attending a humanistic Gymnasium should be a prominent strategy especially among students with highly educated parents and grandparents (see Sawert and Gerhards 2019): higher educational certificates are one subtype of cultural capital in the theory of Bourdieu. Having high cultural capital is associated with a higher probability of developing a habitus that is oriented toward distinction. For successful cultural distinction, cultural practices must fulfill three different characteristics: first, they need to be exclusive; second, the benefit should not be too obvious; third, they need to have a symbolic meaning that has historically been established (Sawert 2018). Learning Latin from grade five onward, most likely by attending a humanistic Gymnasium, fulfills all these characteristics. Hence, we assume that children from highly educated backgrounds are more likely to learn Latin from grade five onward than children from less well-educated backgrounds.
Attending a private school or a humanistic Gymnasium is associated with choosing a specific school. But even after families have opted for a specific school, opportunities for educational differentiation exist. One practice that has been the focus of research is a stay abroad during school time. In a globalizing world, intercultural knowledge, as well as foreign language skills, are an increasingly important resource in the labor market (Tucci and Wagner 2003). Conducting interviews with parents whose children attend a Gymnasium in Germany, Carlson et al. (2017) find that highly educated parents perceive a stay abroad during school time to be a quite common practice, whereas less privileged families do not consider a stay abroad during school time for their children. Weenink (2008), who conducted interviews with parents of children in education, also finds that families not only consider a stay abroad to be a “cosmopolitan vision” (Beck and Sznaider 2006), referring to international values and interconnectedness but they also perceive a stay abroad as an effective strategy for acquiring transnational human capital, e.g., foreign language fluency (Gerhards et al. 2017). Because a stay abroad is associated with high economic costs, a preference for cosmopolitan values, and an orientation toward distinction via the acquisition of transnational human capital, we expect to find a positive association between a privileged educational background and a stay abroad.
Although we derived assumptions about the association between attending a private school, learning Latin from grade five onward, and a stay abroad during school time, our focus does not lie on a single practice. In our analyses, we perceive the three practices as a set for educational distinction in the German upper secondary system, which is in general more likely to be performed by educationally privileged families. Therefore, we formulate the hypothesis that children from an educationally privileged background are more likely to perform at least one of these three practices than children from less privileged backgrounds (H1a). As the habitus associated with distinctive practices is largely transmitted in family socialization (Bourdieu 1991, pp. 64–70), Bourdieu’s theory suggests that the socializing conditions of parents, i.e., cultural capital at the level of grandparents, might also influence the likelihood of distinctive practices. Although empirical results on this are still inconclusive and isolating a direct effect of grandparents is not trivial (Breen 2018), the results of recently published studies suggest that there might be an independent effect of grandparents’ education on the educational careers of their grandchildren (Sheppard and Monden 2018). Accordingly, we operationalize educational origins in our analyses via parental and grandparental education.
As outlined in the introduction of this paper, Jackson (2009) shows that it is the combination of several privileged practices that is most effective in terms of occupational chances. Hence, we differentiate not only whether children follow none or at least one practice but also analyze whether they follow several distinctive curricular practices, e.g., attending a humanistic Gymnasium and having a stay abroad. We assume that the effect of educational background is even more articulated when they follow several curricular strategies of distinction than when they follow only one such practice (H1b).
Leisure Activities as a Form of Intergenerational Transmission of Privilege
Additionally, we not only consider curricular possibilities of distinction but also include leisure activities in our set of distinctive practices. Lareau (2003) adds to the theory of Bourdieu that unequal distributions of cultural practices, such as visiting the theater or the opera, are not only the result of differences in the habitus but are also produced by differences in active child-rearing practices. Focusing on US middle- and working-class families, Lareau shows that middle-class parents actively organize the leisure of their children, aiming at an increase in cultural capital and a reduction in development risks. She refers to this parenting pattern as concerted cultivation and distinguishes it from a parenting pattern observed in US working-class families, who usually do not intervene in the leisure preferences of their children. Lareau (2003) does not focus directly on active highbrow socialization of the families but her findings can be transferred to this topic in a German context.
Reeves and de Vries (2019) demonstrate that cultural consumption, in general, is positively associated with income, even after controlling for factors of the educational and occupational biography. As pointed out by Hartmann (2015) and Jackson (2009), signaling a privileged educational background does particularly pay off in the labor market. One way to signal a privileged socio-economic status is via elite interests (see Jackson 2009). As soon as parents recognize that doing one sport instead of another is perceived more positively in society, it becomes a rational strategy to push the children toward the leisure activity that is perceived to be more prestigious. Focusing on a more passive intergenerational transmission of a highbrow orientation, Bourdieu argues that the socializing environment of the family forms the habitus of the children and that the habitus of the children affects their preferences for distinctive leisure activities. This is outlined by Sawert (2021): Historically academic families, in which not only the parents but also the grandparents have academic degrees, do not have to actively organize the leisure activities of their children, but they produce such a socially selective and homogeneous highbrow environment that their children are socialized in a highbrow cultural environment. This passive socialization mechanism (see Jaeger and Breen 2016) can be assumed to be particularly effective in families in which grandparents also have academic degrees, as this implies that the parents themselves grew up in a household with a high volume of cultural capital on the one hand, and as grandparents might be role models for grandchildren as well.
Two possible leisure activities aimed at distinction are doing specific sports and playing a classical instrument. Whereas it is not distinctive to play football or do bench pressing, sports offered, e.g., by Eton College, such as fencing, tennis, field hockey, or rowing, are usually considered sports that are performed by persons from a privileged socio-economic background. Hwang et al. (2010) demonstrate that golf, tennis, and yachting are socially selective and Engström (1974) shows that additionally for horseback-riding, ballet dancing, and sailing. According to Bourdieu, family is especially important for the intergenerational transmission of a highbrow lifestyle when it comes to actively playing an musical instrument (Bourdieu 1983, p. 187). Learning an instrument is time- and cost-intensive. However, whereas classical instruments such as the violin or the piano are commonly considered highbrow instruments, the same distinctive value is not ascribed to playing the drums or performing pop music. Hence, we formulate the expectation that being from an educationally privileged background increases the probability that the children will do a sport that is considered a highbrow sport and/or have a higher probability of actively playing a classical instrument.
As for the distinctive curricular strategies, we are not interested in the effect of educational background on single distinctive leisure activities but consider them a set of distinctive practices. Hence, we assume that having a privileged educational background increases the probability of following at least one distinctive leisure activity (H2a) and that it, even more, affects the probability of following more than one distinctive leisure activity (H2b).
Our final assumption focuses on the combination of distinctive curricular strategies and distinctive leisure activities. Building on Bourdieu (1984), we expect that a distinctive curricular strategy or a distinctive leisure activity might be followed by less privileged socio-economic classes as well, as they copy the practices performed by the educationally privileged classes. Therefore, we expect the combination of curricular and leisure activities to be particularly selective (H3). With the formulation of this assumption, we bridge the gap to the finding of Jackson (2009) that it is the combination of different signals for a privileged socio-economic background that pays off the most in the labor market.