Higher education among parents improves children’s educational attainment

The expansion of universities in 1950–1970 narrowed regional differences with regard to opportunities to complete a higher education degree. The effects of the improved chances for admission even extended to the next generation: children also pursuing university studies and the number of completed school years improved decades later.

Photo by: Mikonsaari Aarne / Lappeenrannan museot [CC BY-NC-ND 4.0]

The level of education is known to be passed on, but a child also benefits directly from their parent’s tertiary education. The research conducted by Tuomo Suhonen (VATT) and Hannu Karhunen (Labour Institute for Economic Research) indicates that positive local changes in the accessibility of higher education increase some individuals’ likelihood of completing a higher education degree. The long-term educational results of their children also improved decades later.

In the 1950s, there were still vast regional differences in the accessibility of higher education. The old university regions, Helsinki and Turku, had plenty of tertiary education places in relation to the number of potential students in nearby areas, but accessibility elsewhere in the country was weak.  By the mid-1970s, the regional differences had reduced significantly and some of them had disappeared altogether, as the university network expanded rapidly and in a way that was difficult to anticipate from the perspective of individuals.

This setting allows for an intergenerational examination of causal relationships, which has not been done before in Finland in terms of higher education.

“The positive correlation between education among parents and their children is not a direct indication of the intergenerational benefits of education, since the correlation may be the result of genetically inherited capabilities, for example. We can reach a higher degree of confidence in the existence of these benefits by making use of a natural experiment, such as the changes in the educational opportunities of a certain part of the population, as in this case,” says senior researcher Tuomo Suhonen.

In recent years, the higher education system has been criticised for being too diverged, and trends have pointed towards larger units and a sparser network. At the same time, concern over the decline in the level of national education has surfaced in public debate.

According to Tuomo Suhonen, the research does not lend itself to any direct conclusions as to what the significance of the current accessibility of higher education is in terms of people’s educational choices, and thereby their level of education.

“In any case, the results indicate that the impact of higher education reforms is not limited merely to the young people subject to them, but to later generations as well. This is something we should keep in mind in decision-making,” says Suhonen.

The research relies on local changes in the accessibility of higher education experienced in their youth by Finnish parents born in 1936–1956. The material for the research consists of longitudinal register data from Statistics Finland that covers the entire population of Finland during the period between 1970 and 2016.


The intergenerational effects of parental higher education: Evidence from changes in university accessibility. VATT Working Papers 100

Further information:
Tuomo Suhonen, Senior Researcher, tel. +358 295 519 507