Educational Decisions and Social Inequality

The research unit Educational Decisions and Social Inequality unites projects that focus on inequality in educational opportunity (IEO) according to social background over the life course. Building on Boudon’s (1974) distinction of primary and secondary effects, we separate the sources of IEO into those that arise from differential competencies and those that are the consequence of differential choices of individual actors when competencies are held constant. The research unit is particularly concerned with the latter sources of IEO: educational decisions that are systematically connected to social background, such as social class, parental education, or gender. Thus, it places an important focus on choice and agency.


Previous research has demonstrated that, by international comparison, the German education system is characterized by particularly strong secondary effect of parental background. Across the life course, educational decisions are consistently influenced by social background, from the parents’ decision to send their child to preschool to adults’ participation in further education and training. Sociological theory offers a wide range of explanations for these differential decisions, ranging from rational choice models to more traditional socialization approaches, such as the Wisconsin model, and dual process models that aim to reconcile the two aforementioned. Furthermore, decisions might be shaped by access to resources, such as financial, cultural, and social capital.


The following projects are situated in the research unit Educational Decisions and Social Inequality:

Finding compromises and its consequences

NEPS Decisions


Social capital in the transition to vocational training and at labor market entry