Towards Equal Educational Opportunities: The Complex Interaction between Genes, Families, and Schools


Dutch children with similar IQ are twice as likely to attain higher education when their parents are highly educated compared to when parents are lower educated. With such unequal opportunities increasing worldwide, President Obama marked it the “defining challenge of our time”.

Two common sociological explanations for educational inequality are that (1) parents with high socioeconomic status (SES) provide their children with a more stimulating environment, which helps children develop important non-cognitive abilities, (2) high SES parents help their children make more favourable choices at crucial transitions in the educational system. Whereas such explanations imply unequal environmental opportunities, non-cognitive abilities are also largely inherited. Moreover, these environmental and genetic effects do not operate in a vacuum, but interact with each other in ways that can differentially impact inequality.

Proposed policies to reduce educational inequality neglect this interplay entirely: they focus only on how educational institutions alter the impact of family environment. This is understandable, because theoretical and empirical work on the complex interplay between genes, family, and school environment is virtually non-existent. A reason for the lack of empirical work is the comprehensive data and advanced methods that are required.

I aim to fill this gap by 1) developing theory on the interaction between genetic, family, and school influences on education, 2) creating a genetically informed large-scale dataset with detailed information on the family environment and school characteristics of Dutch twins, 3) applying state-of-the-art gene-environment interaction models. By being the first to simultaneously study genes, families and schools, this design will greatly improve our understanding of the causal mechanisms underlying educational inequality. I assess the potential effectiveness of Dutch educational reforms by measuring the school characteristics targeted by these reforms (e.g., delayed tracking, stacking). Results will directly feed into policymakers because of a close collaboration with the Inspectorate of Education.


Project number


Main applicant

Dr. A. Knigge

Affiliated with

Universiteit Utrecht, Faculteit Sociale Wetenschappen, Departement Maatschappijwetenschappen


01/01/2018 to 31/12/2020