The effect of early parental death on children’s university education

Sanna Kailaheimo & Jani Erola


The role of social background as a determinant of adult status has been widely studied over previous decades. These studies have shown that children inherit resources from their parents and the wider social background and that the positive effects of different resources accumulate over the life course. The intergenerational impact of parental death has been a relatively little-studied topic with some studies showing negative effects (e.g., Jonsson and Gähler 1997; Fronstin, Greenberg, and Robins 2001; Amato and Anthony 2014) and others showing no negative effects on children’s education (e.g., Lang and Zagorsky 2001; Francesconi, Jenkins, and Siedler 2010).

In this paper, we focus on the relationship between the timing of parental death and children’s university education, applying ordinary least square regression and linear sibling fixed effect models on high-quality Finnish Census Panel data, consisting of 49,202 children born between 1980 and 1988.

Parental death has a more negative effect the younger the child is. Lowered long-term family income did not explain the negative effects, and the re-partnering of the widow was not a successful compensation strategy. There are positive selection effects when those experiencing parental death come from a family background that otherwise has positive effects on children’s education.

Keywords: parental death, maternal death, paternal death, social inheritance, education


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