Compensatory or multiplicative advantage? Parental resources, school achievement and access to higher education in Finland

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The rules of intake, which determine how educational institutions are accessed, play a significant part in generating intergenerational educational inequalities. Different rules may allow parental resources to compensate for students’ lack of resources (such as academic ability) or to multiply and boost only those students who are in a position to use such additional resources. In this paper, we study compensation and multiplication of resources in the context of the Finnish higher education system. Entrance exams and a dual model (universities and polytechnics) make this system unique compared to many other Western countries and hence suitable for this study. Using high-quality register data, we studied the interaction between parental education and school achievement in the transition to higher education. We found that well-performing students are likely to access university if their parents have higher education, and to polytechnics, if their parents have basic or secondary education. Poorly performing students whose parents have higher education are likely to access polytechnics, but poorly performing students whose parents do not have a tertiary-level education are not likely to access higher education at all. Overall, our results suggest that compensatory advantage operates in accessing lower-threshold institutions and multiplicative advantage in accessing highly selective institutions.