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The long-term benefits of education: Why the pursuit of education is critical, even in adulthood

The acquisition of skills is of significant importance at all stages of life. Individuals with higher levels of education tend to achieve higher incomes over time and demonstrate greater approval of basic democratic values and greater trust in democratic institutions. These and other findings on the evolution of education over the course of a person's life can be seen in the analyses conducted by the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories (LIfBi) for the new National Education Report "Education in Germany 2024". The National Educational Panel Study (NEPS) data was employed to map the educational participation and higher qualifications of almost 1,500 adults over their 40-year working lives. The findings demonstrate that higher educational qualifications are not only acquired in and directly after school. In light of these and other findings on educational trajectories, skills development and outcomes, the authors argue for the creation of favourable framework conditions for successful transitions between educational areas and opportunities for skills acquisition in post-school life .

Targeted support for low-skilled people with educational programmes
Employment and a higher income are directly linked to the level of education attained. In 2022, 89% of adults living in Germany with a high level of education were employed. In contrast, only 65% of adults with no vocational qualifications and no higher education entrance qualification were economically inactive. 
Women with low levels of formal qualifications and young children were particularly likely to be inactive. Due to the shortage of skilled workers, it seems important to create targeted qualification and support offers in order to integrate low-skilled people into the labour market and counteract the unequal distribution of labour market participation. The findings from the National Education Report also touch on other areas of political action, as trust in democracy is visibly higher among people with a higher level of education.

Higher qualifications can be completed at working age
The long-term perspective of the NEPS makes it possible to look at people's educational and employment biographies over a period of several decades. The example of the 1945 to 1949 birth cohort shows that educational qualifications are often obtained even after leaving the education system - often while working.

  • Over a period of 40 years, 28% of those born after the war achieved a higher level of education than they had when they first left the education system.
  • Low-qualified people were particularly successful here. In the 40 years after leaving the education system, almost half of them (46%) acquired a university entrance qualification, completed a vocational, master craftsman or comparable training programme or even a university degree.

A low level of education is not set in stone
Co-author of the Education Report and Director of LIfBi, Prof Dr Cordula Artelt: "Low levels of formal education have many negative consequences, such as unemployment, lower social participation and low incomes. However, our data also shows that a low level of education is not set in stone! Vocational and even higher education qualifications can be obtained many years after leaving the education system for the first time and skills gaps can be made up to some extent. It is important to create more and better-linked programmes and opportunities for participation in our education system that can reach people at different stages of their lives."
One example of this is language skills. Low literacy is often associated with a higher likelihood of unemployment and low income. However, even if the foundations are laid in childhood, reading and writing skills can be developed throughout life. A good third of adults who were considered to have low literacy skills in the years 2010 to 2013 managed to achieve medium or even high literacy skills in the following 4 to 6 years. This is a fundamental prerequisite for securing employment or exiting unemployment.


Low qualifications are passed on from parents to children 
Children's educational opportunities in Germany still depend heavily on their social background. The example of schoolchildren who have been followed as part of the NEPS since 2010 shows that the interplay of origin-related risks and the educational opportunities influenced by them can increase the risk of unskilled employment and unemployment later in life. The parents' level of education plays an important role here:

  • Only 24% of the children of parents who did not have a vocational qualification or a higher education entrance qualification were enrolled in university 8 years after completing the 9th grade.
  • Only 24% of the children of parents who did not have a vocational qualification or a higher education entrance qualification were enrolled in university 8 years after completing the 9th grade.
  • 44% of pupils in an at-risk situation had not obtained a vocational qualification around 10 years after attending the 9th grade and
  • 36% of pupils in at-risk situations had been unemployed for at least one month or longer without having previously obtained a vocational qualification.

NEPS data for national education reporting
LIfBi has compiled the findings on these and other topics for the chapter "Educational Trajectories, Skills Development and Outcomes" of the National Education Report. The chapter provides an overview of the long-term educational biographies of people in Germany, focussing on different educational conditions, prerequisites and achievements. The chapter, for which LIfBi is responsible, is based on data from the National Educational Panel Study, one of the largest long-term social science studies on educational biographies in Germany, which is based at LIfBi.

About the National Report on Education
The report "Education in Germany" is compiled by an independent group of researchers representing the following institutions: 
The DIPF | Leibniz Institute for Research and Information in Education (lead), the German Institute for Adult Education - Leibniz Centre for Lifelong Learning (DIE), the German Youth Institute (DJI), the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), the Leibniz Institute for Educational Trajectories (LIfBi), the Göttingen Sociological Research Institute (SOFI) at Georg August University and the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis). 
The Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder (KMK) and the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) support the preparation of the report.


To the entire report "Education in Germany 2024" in German language (Link)

To chapter i "Educational pathways, skills development, contracts" in German language (Link).

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Sources: Autor:innengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung (2024). Education in Germany 2024. An indicator-based report with an analysis of vocational education and training. wbv publication.

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