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Education and Social Mobility  

Helena Holmlund and Martin Nybom

Family background is a strong determinant of an individual’s educational achievement and labor market success. Using an economics framework, intergenerational persistence in socioeconomic status can be explained by a variety of factors, including parental investment behavior, credit constraints, and the degree of inequality in society. Genetic transmission from parents to children may also play a role. In addition, the skill formation process is governed by dynamics between different stages of a child’s life, such as complementarities between early and late investments or between informal and formal education. Education policy holds the promise of breaking the strong ties between family background and socioeconomic position by providing publicly accessible education for children of all backgrounds. However, the education system may also perpetuate social inequalities if well-off families are able to protect their children from downward mobility by, for example, moving to neighborhoods with high-quality schools and by providing networks that offer opportunities to succeed. However, a growing number of studies show that educational interventions can have long-lasting effects on students’ outcomes, in particular for disadvantaged students, and that they can be cost-effective. For example, reducing class size, increasing general education spending, tutoring, and improving teacher quality are policy levers that are shown to be successful in this regard. Shifting from selective to comprehensive school systems is also a policy that enhances equality of opportunity. While the evidence on credit constraints and their role for access to higher education is evolving, but still mostly U.S. focused and largely inconclusive, it is a key domain for shaping social mobility given the life-changing impacts that a university degree can have.