The intergenerational transmission of early educational advantages: New results based on an adoption design

Andrew Halpern-Manners, Helge Marahrens, Jenae M. Neiderhiser, Misaki N. Natsuaki, Daniel S. Shaw, David Reiss, Leslie D. Leve

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Sociological research has traditionally emphasized the importance of post-birth factors (i.e., social, economic, and cultural capital) in the intergenerational transmission of educational advantages, to the neglect of potentially consequential pre-birth endowments (e.g., heritable traits) that are passed from parent to child. In this study, we leverage an experiment of nurture—children who were adopted at birth into nonrelative families—in an effort to simultaneously model the effects associated with both pathways. To do so, we fit a series of simple linear regression models that relate the academic achievement of adopted children to the educational attainments of their adoptive and biological parents, using U.S. data from a recent nationwide sample of birth and adoptive families (the Early Growth and Development Study). Because our dataset includes both “genetic” and “environmental” relatives, but not “genetic-and-environmental” relatives, the separate contributions of each pathway can be identified, as well as possible interactions between the two. Our results show that children's early achievements are influenced not only by the attainments of their adoptive parents, but also the attainments of their birth parents—suggesting the presence of environmental and genetically mediated effects. Supplementary analyses provide little evidence of effect moderation, using both distal and proximate measures of the childhood environment to model gene-by-environment interactions. These findings are robust to a variety of parameterizations, withstand a series of auxiliary checks, and remain intact even after controlling for intrauterine exposures and other measurable variables that could compromise our design. The implications of our results for theory and research in the stratification literature, and for those interested in educational mobility, are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number100486
JournalResearch in Social Stratification and Mobility
StatePublished - Jun 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)


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