Can Increased Educational Attainment Among Lower-Educated Mothers Reduce Inequalities in Children’s Skill Development?

Abstract

A rich tradition of stratification research has established a robust link between mothers’ education and the skills in children that forecast children’s own mobility. Yet, this research has failed to consider that many U.S. women are now completing their education after having children. Such a trend raises questions about whether increases in mothers’ educational attainment can improve their children’s skill development and whether these gains are enough to reduce inequalities in skills compared with children whose mothers completed the same degree before they were born. To answer these questions, we draw on a nationally representative sample of mothers and children participating in the National Longitudinal Surveys (NLSY79 and CNLY), random- and fixed-effects techniques, and repeated measures of children’s cognitive and noncognitive skills. Contrary to existing research and theory, our results reveal that educational attainment obtained after children’s births is not associated with an improvement in children’s skills. Such findings offer substantial refinement to a long-standing model of intergenerational mobility by suggesting that the intergenerational returns to mother’s education are weaker when education is acquired after children are born. Results also highlight the limits of two-generation policy approaches to reducing inequality in future generations.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In many cases, lack of attention to the timing of mother’s degree completion vis-à-vis the child’s birth is due to data limitations, in which education is assessed at the time of the interview and the date of degree completion is not known, although many other studies rely on data—such as the NSLY79, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCW), the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Kindergarten Cohort (ECLS-K), the Early Childhood Longitudinal Survey-Birth Cohort (ECLS-B), and the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID)—which (to varying degrees) allow researchers to assess whether the child’s mother increased her education post-fertility. There is some indication that scholars have failed to account for the timing of education because of norms around life course sequencing and the stability of education (e.g., see Marini 1984; Sirin 2005), although there is scant empirical evidence to make such judgments. It is fair to say, however, that few studies deal with this issue of educational sequencing in either a methodological and conceptual sense, but there is increasing evidence (described in the text) that we should do so.

  2. 2.

    For women who earned degrees/diplomas prior to 1988, we can capture the survey wave the degree was earned but not the month. In such cases, we code the month as May if the degree is a college degree (when they are typically conferred) and June (likewise) if it is a high school diploma. This assignment has implications for only a small number of cases in which the birth occurred the same year (8 %). In cases of inconsistent reporting of education (e.g., mother reported 12 years, then 10 years, then 12 years), we recoded the outlying year (10) with the modal report (12).

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Acknowledgments

The first author acknowledges funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (1R03HD073312). The authors acknowledge the helpful comments and feedback provided by Rose Medeiros, Ariel Kalil, Marcy Carlson, and the members of the Consortium for Research on Health, Inequalities, and Populations (CHIP) at the University of South Carolina.

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Augustine, J.M., Negraia, D.V. Can Increased Educational Attainment Among Lower-Educated Mothers Reduce Inequalities in Children’s Skill Development?. Demography 55, 59–82 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13524-017-0637-4

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Keywords

  • Maternal education
  • Child development
  • Stratification
  • Inequality
  • Family