How Parental Networks Shape Educational Decisions: Social Capital in a Stratified School System

Sven Lenkewitz, Mark Wittek


Our study uses multiplex class-level network data to answer the question how access to actors with a large stock of social capital affects educational trajectories. Thereby, we contribute to a better understanding of how unequal access to social capital translates into inequality in the attainment of educational outcomes. We synthesize macro-sociological considerations with network-theoretical arguments to arrive at a comprehensive view on the distribution of social capital and its consequences for individuals in the school context. To test out theoretical expectations, we investigate the German stratified school system and consider what kind of resources are valuable and which students have access to these resources in the first place. We utilize a large-scale longitudinal data set, to investigate whether social networks of 9th-grade adolescents (~ 15 years old) in Germany affect their educational decisions, namely whether students attend university. We argue that two forms of social capital affect educational decisions, firstly, students’ social capital and, secondly, parents’ social capital. Therefore, we obtain the information whether students know at least one parent (except of their own) who has a university degree as well as parents’ having contact with at least one other parent holding such a degree. We then estimate whether these two forms of social capital affect students’ decision to attend university at one point in their educational careers. However, in a diverse society with a complex school system, it can be assumed that not all resources are equally valuable. We argue that parents had to obtain their university degree in Germany in order to provide the necessary information or serve as a role model to affect educational decisions. Therefore, we differentiate between contact to academic native parents (i.e. born in Germany) and academic parents who migrated to Germany (i.e. not born in Germany). Our school fixed-effect models show that both types of social capital improve the chance of students’ to enroll in university. However, only access to native parents provides these benefits and we find that social capital is track-dependent. Students in the vocational-track do not benefit from social capital as their path to university is formally complicated and cumbersome. Students’ in the intermediate track do not benefit if they have access to this form of social capital themselves but only benefit from their parents’ social capital. Only in the academic-track students’ as well as parents’ social capital improves the chances to enroll in higher education. These effects are present after controlling for students’ own socioeconomic background, cognitive test scores, and average grades. In a subsequent step, we investigated who has access to these valuable parents. We show that while parents who have an academic degree tend to possess social capital, less educated parents suffer a social capital deficit. We assume that parents exhibit homophily on socioeconomic status and search for similar others in their school. Combined with a stratified sorting of students at the start of secondary school, this leads to a double advantage for students with parents who hold a university degree.

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