Genetic advantage and equality of opportunity in education: Two definitions, and an empirical application

Authors: Rita Dias Pereira,
Issue: 2022
Themes: ,
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Research on equality of opportunity has long acknowledged that genetic factors play a role in determining our level of success.

But if we want to measure equality of opportunity, should we treat innate advantages as fair or unfair? And how would each of these two different perspectives affect researchers’ outcomes when they try to measure levels of equality of opportunity in a society?

Using the US Health and Retirement Study, researchers analysed data on the educational achievements of more than 8000 US adults from European backgrounds, born between 1920 and 1959.

The participants provided samples which enabled the calculation of a ‘polygenic score’ – this score aggregates information on genetic variants strongly associated with educational achievement. This enabled the researchers to discover whether those predisposed to do well actually did spend more years in education, taking into account family background, wealth and social class – and whether this changed over time.

They found genetics played an increasingly important role in educational attainment for those born later.

So if we believe it’s fair for a student to do better due to innate talent, then equality of opportunity has improved over time. If, however, we believe the opposite, then the situation has deteriorated.

The researchers argue that as the role of genetics is given more weight in both public and private spheres, an open and honest conversation is needed.