Primary and Secondary Effects on Choice of Field in Higher Education

Friday, 20 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Haavar HELLAND, Center for the study of professions, OsloMet – Oslo Metropolitan University, Norway
Oyvind Nicolay WIBORG, Department of Sociology and Human geography, University of Oslo, Norway
This paper explores the choice of field in higher education, and the importance of grades from upper secondary school and parents' educational field for this choice. In times of inflation in educational credentials, differences between educational fields are increasingly important for individual life chances (Di Stasio, Bol, & Van de Werfhorst, 2016; Van de Werfhorst, 2009; Werfhorst & Andersen, 2005).

To address these issues, we study educational choices in the transition to tertiary education in Norway. The Norwegian case is particularly well suited for a study of choice of educational field. On average, the returns to higher education is quite low in Norway, but the returns vary considerable between educational fields. Grades are the only sorting criteria, and the only way upper and middle class students may use their family resources to increase their educational options is by retaking exams from upper secondary. By modeling effects of both social origin variables (like parents' educational fields and income), grade point average from upper secondary education and the propensity to retake exams, we may draw clearer distinctions between the role of preferences and school grades, i.e. secondary and primary effects (Boudon 1974).

The analyses examine the transition to higher education among young adults, and we rely on Norwegian administrative data covering the complete population. These data are well suited to examine fine-grained educational categories at the tertiary level, for both parents and their children. We control for grades from upper-secondary school. Our findings suggest that (1) significant intergenerational bindings in educational choices vary between fields: associations are stronger in fields with higher prestige and status. Even when (2) controlling for school grades such patterns remain quite substantial. Such findings could imply that secondary effects not only play a role in transitions between educational levels, but also between fields.