Photo by Steven Saus, Flickr CC

There are numerous factors that contribute to student success at school. For example, sociologists have explored the positive effects of higher parental income on student success. And while intelligence and hard work play an undeniable role in academic performance, a recent study by Martin Hällsten and Fabian T. Pfeffer finds that the ability to succeed in school may be partially determined generations before a student even sets foot in the classroom.

Hällsten and Pfeffer innovated from previous studies by focusing on familial wealth rather than income. Changes in wealth tend to be less dynamic than shifts in income, and this analysis allows them to better understand advantages passed between multiple generations. The research team created a new data source, combining a variety of relevant Swedish registers, including a register linking children to parents and grandparents, another on parental income and education, and data on childhood educational success. They were able to capture wealth data and educational data for nearly the entire population of Sweden. 

In utilizing this system, the researchers isolated the effects of grandparents, comparing cousins within the same family and to determine whether effects held constant between them. They found a strong relationship between grandparent wealth and student GPAs, and perhaps even more striking, when compared, parents and grandparents wealth had almost equal effects on student success. This means that studies which focused exclusively on parent-to-child wealth were vastly underselling the benefits, nearly by half, of familial financial success. 

Hällsten and Pfeffer point out that the context of their research matters. In Sweden, a fairly homogeneous and egalitarian country, there are lower levels of inequality on a wide variety of dynamics, like income, class, and education, and many resources that can be expensive in other nations (especially higher levels of education) are free and accessible for all students. This means that in societies where financial success is more directly tied with the ability to succeed as a student (like paying for an exclusive private education or paying for safer and more stable living conditions), wealth can play an even more important role. Particularly in nations like the United States, where inequality in wealth is continuing to rise, the effects found in this study might be even more significant.