Educational expansion and the role of demographic factors:

The case of West Germany

Maarten L. Buis, Bastian Mönkediek, Steffen Hillmert

Population Review (2012), vol 51, no 2, pp. 1-15.


A recurring populist fear is that some disadvantaged minority – for example the Irish, the Catholics, or the Muslims – is “out-breeding” the rest of the population, leading to a general decline of the society. A testable version of that fear is that the combination of differential fertility and inequality of educational opportunities would lead to a lowering of average levels of education in the next generation. In this article we investigate how demographic and social stratification processes in one cohort influence the distribution of education in subsequent cohorts within a Western society.


In how far is the educational distribution in successive generations affected by parental differential fertility and social inequalities in educational attainment? For example, lower educated women are likely to have more children than higher educated women and the children of lower educated mothers are more likely to attain less education than the children of higher educated mothers. This may lead to a downward pressure on the average level of education in the next generation. The aim of this article is to quantify the role of these mechanisms for West Germany in the 20th century. This is done by simulating the distribution of education under different scenarios: a reference scenario in which all rates correspond to the empirically observed rates, a scenario that completely removes differential fertility, a scenario that completely removes inequality of educational opportunity, and a scenario that greatly increases the amount of differential fertility. The main finding is that the observed levels of inequality of educational opportunity and differential fertility are too small to result in a meaningful impact on the distribution of education in the subsequent generation. Both the first and the second scenario lead to only minor changes in the distribution of education compared with the reference scenario. However, in principle differential fertility could have a noticeable effect. This is illustrated by the results from the last scenario in which fertility of the lowest educated women is greatly increased. In such an extreme but not impossible society the average education would be considerably lower than in the reference scenario.

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