Parental educational attainment

In 1931, in the depths of the Great Depression, James Truslow Adams published a history of the United States entitled The Epic of America. In this book, Adams coined the term "the American dream" as "that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone." Adams also identified as part of the dream an inherent notion of equality of opportunity, "a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position."38 The nature of dreams, however, is that they are part of the domain of the imagination. Social scientists, economists, and critics have all acknowledged the extent to which this dream diverges from the reality of life in the United States.39 Nonetheless, the notion that one has equal access to opportunity and that this access is tied to one's educational attainment is a powerful one for most Americans.

In the 21st century, education is understood to be an essential gateway to opportunity. Indeed, the PIAAC data confirm that higher levels of education are correlated with higher skill levels for adults across all participating PIAAC countries. There is another related and important variable that is strongly associated with skills: parental educational attainment.40 Large-scale international surveys (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, the Programme for International Student Assessment, Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and national surveys (NAEP) of student achievement consistently confirm the correlation between the level of parental education and the performance of children.41 These surveys often rely on parental education as an important indicator or proxy for socioeconomic background, or socioeconomic status (SES),42 though they frequently use other measures as well (such as parental engagement or number of books in the home). Individuals with parents who have lower levels of educational attainment tend to have fewer socioeconomic advantages, and those whose parents have higher levels of educational attainment often have greater socioeconomic advantages. Research studies have documented the extent to which parents with access to capital beyond—though strongly related to—income and wealth deeply influences the well-being of their children.43 These parents have greater material resources to expend on young children and also tend to spend more time interacting with them (for example, by reading to them at an early age) in ways that strongly influence achievement outcomes.44 Thus, parental education, while in part a proxy for socioeconomic status, may in fact provide a more direct link to the skills attainment of both children and young adults.

The positive correlation between parental education and skills is readily observed in the PIAAC data. For example, the average numeracy score for U.S. millennials who reported that neither parent had attained an upper secondary degree (i.e., the most disadvantaged) is 212—thirty-eight points lower than millennials who indicated that at least one parent had attained a high school degree (or equivalent) (figure 9) . Moreover, there is a 61-point difference in the average score of millennials whose parents had the lowest and highest levels of educational attainment (that is, the gap in scores between the least and most advantaged millennials).45

This correlation between parental educational level and skill is not, on the face of it, especially noteworthy—all major large-scale surveys of student achievement in the United States across grade levels and subjects support this relationship.46 International surveys of adult skills offer us an opportunity, however, to gain more insight into the link between parental education and adult skills acquisition (while not discounting that other factors also contribute to skills outcomes). First, the surveys allow us to examine how parental educational attainment relates to scores within and across countries and see whether the correlation between increased parental educational attainment and children's skills outcome holds even when looking at millennials. Second, by comparing the gap in scores among the millennials whose parents had different levels of educational attainment, we can examine the extent to which parental education influences skill levels differently across countries. Third, the survey data provide an opportunity to compare the scores of millennials whose parents have similar levels of educational attainment.

Across all countries, as in the U.S., increased levels of parental educational attainment are associated with higher skill levels for millennials (table 2). Nonetheless, among countries, the gap in the score between millennials whose parents have the lowest levels of educational attainment and those whose parents have the highest varies considerably. For example, in the U.S., the gap in these scores is among the highest of all the OECD countries (61 points). In other countries, such as the Republic of Korea, Ireland, and Finland, the gap is as low as 20, 27, and 30 points, respectively. This suggests that for U.S. millennials, parental education is a strong indicator of skill level to the extent that it is more closely tied to "...the fortuitous circumstances of [their] birth or position" than for the millennials in most other OECD nations.47

The comparative data on skills attainment and parental education highlight another salient point: The scores of U.S. millennials do not compare favorably with those of their international peers who have parents with similar levels of educational attainment. In fact, across all three levels of parental educational attainment, there is no country where millennials score lower than those in the United States.48 Additionally, while a relatively large percentage of our millennials (and the parents of millennials) have pursued post-secondary education when compared to other countries, on average, the scores for this more advantaged group are still disappointingly low.

Figure 10 charts the relationship between average numeracy score (the dot) for millennials overall and the percentage of millennials indicating that one of their parents obtained a tertiary degree (the vertical bar). If the expected relationship between parental educational level and achievement were to hold, one would anticipate that countries with a high percentage of millennials who have a parent with a tertiary degree would also have higher average scale scores relative to countries where millennials reported a lower percentage of parents with a tertiary degree. In a number of instances, however, this appears to not be the case. In Finland, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Czech Republic, for example, parental education appears to have a weak relationship to overall performance. In these countries, while relatively low percentages of millennials reported having a parent with a tertiary education, the average scores for millennials were relatively high. At the other end of the spectrum, the United States is conspicuous as having a high percentage of millennials reporting a parent with tertiary education (48%) yet one of the lower overall numeracy scores (255). In addition, while the percentage of U.S. millennials (48%) who report their parents as having a tertiary education was four times that of Italy (12%) and more than twice that of Spain (20%), the overall scores are comparable for these three countries. (See table C-5 for complete data.)

The data on parental educational attainment and skills is provocative for two reasons. The disappointing performance of U.S. millennials across parental education categories when compared to other countries signals a problem: Even millennials with the most educated parents underperform compared to their international peers with similar advantages. In addition, the large gap in skills between U.S. millennials whose parents have the lowest and highest levels of educational attainment points to social and economic inequality between advantaged and less advantaged members of our society that has a multiplying effect over time. Today, in fact, we are living in an era of increased economic inequality, likely unrivaled in the U.S. since the Gilded Age of the late 19th century.49 Because skills are, in turn, so closely aligned with one's economic prosperity, there is an increasing danger that the gulf between advantaged and disadvantaged will continue to widen. Indeed, the reinforcing nature of this process can be dizzying to contemplate. Consider, for example, that:

Families clearly have a strong interest in investing in the future social and economic well-being of their children. Although some of these investments may not require financial resources—such as reading to one's children when they are young—many obviously do, including payments for quality child care, purchases of books and computers, living in higher-priced neighborhoods with access to good public schools, assistance with college costs, and financial support for young adults to help them get started in their independent economic lives once their education is completed.50

The disparity in private (as well as the public) investments made on behalf of children between different levels of SES can be substantial, lasting, and self-perpetuating. Moreover, these benefits are in addition to the remuneration that we assume generally accompanies having a parent with higher levels of educational attainment.

Economic opportunities, accessible in large measure through educational attainment as well as the educational attainment levels of one's parents, are clearly tightly woven with skills acquisition. The PIAAC data provide a crucial reminder, however, that merely having parents with higher education (or higher socioeconomic status), or having higher levels of education oneself, does not guarantee a competitive skills advantage. Many of those who attain higher levels of educational attainment, who are among the most advantaged of our adult population, nonetheless demonstrate relatively weaker skills in comparison to their international peers. For education to be a vehicle for future success, for it to fuel the American Dream, it has to be aligned with an economy that values the skills that it imparts, and those skills must be translatable to tangible opportunities. If the outlook is cloudy for many of the more advantaged segments of the population, then it is indeed dark for those who are least advantaged by their socioeconomic status and less likely to have access to a high quality education.

38 James Truslow Adams, The Epic of America (Little Brown & Company, 1931). For more on social inequality and skills, see: Dirk Van Damme, How Closely is the Distribution of Skills Related to Countries' Overall Level of Social Inequality and Economic Prosperity?, OECD Education Working Papers No. 105 (Paris: OECD Publishing, October 2014),

39 Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline, Emmanuel Saez, and Nicholas Turner. "Is the United States Still a Land of Opportunity? Recent Trends in Intergenerational Mobility," NBER Working Paper 19844 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2014); Raj Chetty, Nathaniel Hendren, Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez. "Where Is the Land of Opportunity? The Geography of Intergenerational Mobility in the United States (June 2014),; Greenstone et al., "Thirteen Economic Facts"; Miles Corak, "Inequality and Opportunity: How to Slide Down the Great Gatsby Curve," Presentation given at Ottawa Economics Association, Ottawa Canada, June 6, 2013,

40 Improving the Measurement of Socioeconomic Status for the National Assessment of Educational Progress: A Theoretical Foundation, recommendations to the National Center for Education Statistics (Washington, DC: November 2012),; European Commission Directorate-General for Education and Culture. PISA 2012: EU Performance and First Inferences Regarding Education and Training Policies in Europe, December 3, 2013,; Sean Reardon, "Income Inequality Affects Our Children's Educational Opportunities." In Understanding Whether and How Economic Inequality Affects Economic Growth, September 2014, eds. Heather Boushey and Ed Paisley, 26–28

41 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, The Condition of Education 2014, by Grace Kena, Susan Aud, Frank Johnson, Xialoei Wang, Jijun Zhang, Amy Rathbun, Sidney Wilkinson-Flicker, and Paul Kristapovich, NCES 2014-083 (Washington, DC: May 2014), accessed September 30, 2014.

42 OECD, OECD Skills Outlook 2013, 112.

43 Brian Keeley, Human Capital: How What You Know Shapes Your Life. (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2007),; James W. Pellegrino and Margaret L. Hilton, eds., Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century. (Washington DC: National Academies Press, 2012); Reardon, "Income Inequality."

44 Paul Barton and Richard Coley, Parsing the Achievement Gap, II. (Princeton NJ: Policy Information Center, Educational Testing Service, 2009),; Braun, Dynamics of Opportunity.

45 The PIAAC parental education data classifies three different levels of parental education from adult responses to the background questionnaires:

  • Neither parent had a high school (upper secondary) education
  • At least one parent had attained secondary and post-secondary, non-tertiary education
  • At least one parent has attained tertiary education

46 U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Improving the Measurement of Socioeconomic Status for the National Assessment of Educational Program: A Theoretical Foundation, by Charles D. Cowan, Robert M. Hauser, Robert A. Kominski, Henry M. Levin, Samuel R. Lucas, Stephen L. Morgan, Margaret Beale Spencer, and Chris Chapman (expert panel) (Washington, DC: 2012),; European Commission, Directorate-General for Education and Culture, PISA 2012: EU Performance and First Inferences Regarding Education and Training Policies in Europe (Brussels: European Commission, 2013),

47 Adams, The Epic of America.

48 This may in part be due to the influence of foreign-born U.S. millennials whose parents do not have a high school education, as their score is 13 points below that of native-born U.S. millennials in this category of parental education. See table C-7 for more information and cross-country comparisons of U.S. millennials by nativity and parental education.

49 Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century; Facundo Alvaredo, Anthony B. Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez. "The Top 1 Percent in International and Historical Perspective," Journal of Economic Perspectives 27 (Summer 2013): 3-20; Lawrence F. Katz and Robert A. Margo, Technical Change and the Relative Demand for Skilled Labor: The United States in Historical Perspective, NBER Working Paper 18752 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, 2013).

50 Timothy Smeeding, Robert Erikson, Markus Jantti, eds., Persistence, Privilege, and Parenting: The Comparative Study of Intergenerational Mobility (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2011).