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Parental Educational Attainment Differentially Boosts School Performance of American Adolescents: Minorities’ Diminished Returns


Objective: To explore racial and ethnic variation in the effects of parental educational attainment on students’ grade point average (GPA) in the US. As suggested by the Minorities’ Diminished Returns (MDR) theory, socioeconomic status (SES) systemically results in smaller outcomes for non-Whites compared to Whites. We still know very little about diminished trans-generational returns of SES resources such as parental educational attainment. For example, the differential impacts of parental educational attainment on school performance of youth from various racial and ethnic backgrounds are still unknown.

Materials and methods: The Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health (PATH 2013 – 2014) is a nationally representative survey in the US. The total sample was 10,701 youth (12-17 years old) were enrolled. The independent variable was parental educational attainment. The main outcome was GPA measured using self-report. Age, gender, and parental marital status were the covariates. Race and ethnicity were the effect modifiers. Linear regression models were used to analyze the data.

Results: Overall, higher parental educational attainment was associated with a higher GPA, independent of all possible confounders. Race and ethnicity, however, both showed significant interaction with parental educational attainment on students’ GPA, indicating smaller positive effects of parental educational attainment on students’ GPA for Hispanic and Black compared to non-Hispanic White youth.

Conclusion: The boosting effect of parental educational attainment on GPA is smaller for Black and Hispanic compared to White youth. To minimize diminished returns of parental educational attainment for Black and Hispanic families, there is a need for innovative public and social policies and programs that are not limited to equalizing SES but also address the structural barriers that disproportionately limit upward social mobility of racial and ethnic minority students and their families. The US society should reduce extra costs of upward social mobility for racial and ethnic minority families. As the underlying mechanisms are multifaceted, multi-level approach is needed to undo minorities’ diminished returns, so every individual can gain the same tangible outcome from their SES resources.