Theoretical Framework

In order to investigate the micro-macro linkages between social background and institutional characteristics of higher education and their joint impact on the propensity to pursue an academic degree, two strands of literature are combined. For the micro-level perspective explicating the causal mechanisms underlying the persistence of inequalities in education, I draw on educational sociology. The moderating impact of macrolevel institutions is subsequently theorized by adopting recent insights from comparative political economy.

Inequality of Educational Opportunities

Educational sociology has a long tradition of researching the origin and the reproduction of inequalities in education (for an overview, see Becker 2011). The findings of this literature, however, are remarkably similar: social background—generally measured as either parental education or parental income—consistently structures both access to and success in higher levels of education across both time and countries (classics include Coleman 1968; Sewell 1971; Mare 1980; Goldthorpe 1996; Breen and Jonsson 2005). Thus, individuals from a low social background (or class) are fundamentally disadvantaged in accessing higher levels of education. Today, these inequalities are especially pronounced in higher education, as the massive expansion of secondary education in recent decades has led to a catch-up effect for lower classes (Becker 2011, 100). Higher education, however, remains highly socially exclusive (Shavit et al. 2007).

How can these persistent inequalities be explained? According to Raymond Boudon (1974), the impact of social background on educational access can be differentiated along the lines of primary and secondary social origin effects. In this view, primary social origin effects relate directly to the social capital of parents. In upper-class households, for example, children will on average have access to more books, and parents are more likely to actively stimulate their children’s cognitive abilities from an early age onwards. At the point of entry into the education system, children from low socio-economic status backgrounds are therefore already disadvantaged compared to children from upper-class parents, irrespective of individual talent. With regard to access to higher education, this difference in starting position at the level of primary education is further compounded by secondary social origin effects. These effects come into play as individuals commence the transition from secondary education to either higher education or paid employment, weighing the expected utility of each available option. Formally, the decision scenario can be expressed as:

PHE = (pU — C)HE

The probability P of choosing a certain path—in this case pursuing an academic degree—therefore depends on three factors, given in the formula by p, U and C: the (subjectively assessed) probability p of successfully completing higher education HE multiplied by its total utility U (for example, increased life-time earnings), less the cost C associated with choosing that path. Accordingly, high values for the total utility and completion probability and low values for cost would independently contribute towards the decision to take up higher education. This cost- benefit calculation, in turn, is affected by the social background of an individual. Naturally, relative cost is higher for low-socio-economic status individuals, as low household income may make tuition fees or living expenses prohibitively expensive. Parents of high-socio-economic status individuals, on the other hand, can more easily afford to pay for higher education. According to Boudon, the other two components of the skill investment calculus—probabilityp and total utility U—are more important in producing inequalities, however. First, because of disadvantages stemming from primary social origin effects, the probability of successfully completing higher education is depressed for low socio-economic status individuals. Second, in addition to financial returns, the utility of pursuing higher education is judged relative to the current social class of the parents. Concerned with preserving their social status, high socioeconomic status individuals have an overwhelming incentive to pursue higher education. Their lower-class counterparts, on the other hand, have a lower utility from enrolling in higher education, since it is not required for the preservation of their social status (Bornkessel and Kuhnen 2011,


While Boudon’s model offers an explanation of why class-based inequalities persist, it neglects the supply side of higher education. The question this chapter addresses, then, is how different configurations of variables shaping higher education systems may affect the cost-benefit analysis of individuals faced with the decision to pursue an academic degree. In order to do so, Boudon’s approach of educational sociology is supplemented by insights from political economy.

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