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Transmitting educational disadvantage? Measuring intergenerational mobility in migrant families

This research project has been completed. Please contact a team member for further information.

Key findings

This research assessed estimates of immigrant intergenerational mobility that are based on aggregate data sources. It showed that aggregation bias strongly inflates estimates of the relationship between immigrants’ educational attainment and the educational attainment of their children. Compared to natives, the educational transmission process between parent and child is much weaker in immigrant families. A number of group-level processes, such as societal discrimination, ethnic segregation, or ethnic networks, may render group characteristics more important predictors of second generation educational attainment than parental education.

From a methodological perspective, the research demonstrated how this variation causes a substantial overestimation of the importance of parental education in immigrant families in studies that use aggregate data. It also showed that the common practice of “controlling” for family human capital using parental years of schooling is problematic when comparing families from different origin countries and especially when comparing native and immigrant families. It links these findings to analytical and empirical distinctions between group- and individual-level processes in intergenerational transmission.

Background & description

The effects of post-World War Two immigration, in particular the social, cultural and demographic shifts that much of the Western world experienced during this period, has been highly documented throughout the literature over the past 10 years.

Immigrants tend to either be highly qualified or have little in the way of formal education. In the latter case (which is the larger group numerically) this raises a serious cause for concern. The key question is whether the low level of education of the parents is passed on to their children. If immigrant children are disadvantaged in this way it would have implications for the success or failure of educational systems in integrating the children of immigrants, and the long term social mobility of those children.

This research investigated:

• The determinants of educational success among the children of immigrants
• The impact of immigration on social inequality and to review the extent towhich immigrants with little formal education pass on their education disadvantage/advantage to their children
• The determinants of educational success amongst the children of immigrants
• Provided methodological insight for researchers who rely on aggregate data
• The factors affecting the relationship between immigrant parents and their children in terms of educational attainment
• Cross-country comparisons of educational attainment where sending countries and receiving countries have similar/dissimilar educational systems


This project was the first of its kind to systematically review and compare different types of analyses of inter-generational mobility in educational outcomes. The project evaluated estimates of immigrant inter-generational transmission in the United States, comparing results from aggregate data to those of individual level data.

Team members

Dr Renee Luthra

Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology - University of Essex

Renee Luthra is a Senior Research Officer at ISER. Research interests include Immigration and Integration in Europe, Social stratification and education

Thomas Soehl

Graduate researcher - Institute for Social and Economic Research

Thomas Soehl is a graduate student researcher with interests in cross border connections of migrants, political incorporation of migrants, linguistic and religious diversity in immigrant societies.

Transmitting educational disadvantage

Photo credit: Cara