Elite universities and the intergenerational transmission of human and social capital


Whether elite universities expand or limit upward mobility in the long run depends on how they shape the intergenerational transmission of educational and social outcomes. We combine five decades of linked data on social and educational trajectories for parents and children in Chile with a regression discontinuity design to describe the intergenerational evolution of social and human capital and illuminate the causal role that elite colleges play. We first document intertwined intergenerational persistence in academic achievement and social status. Mean child rank on college admissions exams is linear in parent rank, with higher intercepts and flatter slopes for children whose parents attend a set of high-status, high-tuition private high schools whose graduates make up large shares of Chilean corporate and political leadership. Children of high-status parents are much more likely to attend high-status high schools and enroll in elite college degree programs, with gaps increasing in parents’ exam rank. We then show that parents’ access to elite colleges raises child social capital, but not human capital. Children of parents just above the threshold for admission to elite degree programs score no better on college entrance exams than children of parents just below, but are 25 percent more likely to attend a high-status high school and 7 percent more likely to attend an elite college. Spouses and social groups are the key mediating factors. A back of the envelope calculation shows that low social capital families are 21 percent more common among the beneficiaries of elite colleges admission than among the next generations social elite as a whole.

  • Coauthors: Andrés Barrios Fernández, Seth D Zimmerman
  • Date: 2022
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