Per Engzell PhD Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow Nuffield College, University of Oxford

Education: Reducing Social Inequities Unintentionally Heightens Importance of Genetics Interview with:

Per Engzell PhD Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow Nuffield College, University of Oxford

Dr. Engzell

Per Engzell PhD
Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow
Nuffield College, University of Oxford

Felix C. Tropf, PhD
 Assistant Professor in Social Science Genetics, CREST-ENSAE, Paris

Dr. Tropf

Felix C. Tropf, PhD
Assistant Professor in Social Science Genetics,
CREST-ENSAE, Paris What is the background for this study?

Response: We know that parents and offspring often resemble each other in their socio-economic outcomes: higher-educated parents tend to have children who reach a similar level of education while children of disadvantaged families struggle in school. To the extent that this compromises equality of opportunity – that is, some children end up better educated only because of their social background – social policies aim to compensate for it and promote social mobility.

At the same time, not all similarity between parents and offspring can be seen as equally troubling. A society that blocked entry to university for any child born to academics would achieve high mobility, but few of us would see it as a model of equal opportunity. So some channels of transmission then, it seems, are more fair than others. Although we may disagree where to draw the line, things like parents’ ability to pay for good neighborhoods, schools, or access to college appear clearly more troubling than the inheritance of traits that make for educational success.

In this study, we ask whether societies that have achieved a high degree of intergenerational mobility have done so by limiting the reach of “nature” (inherited traits), “nurture” (other family advantages), or both. We do so by combining the rich literatures of social mobility research and behavior genetics, comparing variation across several cohorts of men and women in 10 countries. What are the main findings?

Response: The main findings are that the less parents and children resemble each other in their education, the lesser is the influence of the family environment – whilst genetic influences stay constant. In relative terms that means that genes become more important for educational attainment, but this appears to be due only to the successful removal of social inequalities. In other words, policies that promote mobility from one generation to the next do so by limiting the reach of an advantaged or disadvantaged family environment. What should readers take away from your report?

Response: All in all, social policies aiming to reduce socially based inequalities appear to be successful. They reduce the social transmission of education, equalizing opportunities at birth. But thereby they also unintentionally heighten the importance of genetics. A crucial point however is that “heritable” (individual differences are due to genetic differences) does not neccessarily mean “inherited” (passed on from parent to child). While genes are transmitted from one generation to the next, the environment shapes how this lottery turns out. What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?

Response: An obvious next step is to understand what is driving heritability and with it the remainder of parent-offspring resemblance is social positions. Twin research that we draw on in this study leaves the genetic processes largely as a black box. Ongoing molecular genetic research will help us understand the actual traits that produce intergenerational associations in education, but the role of social scientists remains crucial in this work as the influence of genetics is itself deeply shaped by and dependent on social context. Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: All estimates in this study are secondary, meaning that we rely on earlier studies that have collected and analyzed the data that we draw on. We are therefore indebted to those who made our study possible: the World Bank who has done a painstaking job in mapping intergenerational mobility across the world and the authors of a meta-analysis of heritability in education that was published in 2013.


Heritability of education rises with intergenerational mobility
Per Engzell, Felix C. Tropf
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Dec 2019, 116 (51) 25386-25388; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1912998116



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Last Updated on January 20, 2020 by Marie Benz MD FAAD