Study: University completion by parents' educational attainment

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People who have parents with a university degree remain more likely to get a university education than children whose parents do not have a degree, although the gap between the two groups has narrowed over time.

In 1986, 12% of Canadian-born people aged 25 to 39 whose parents did not complete university had graduated from university. By 2009, this proportion had almost doubled to 23%.

In contrast, in 1986, 45% of people who had at least one parent with a university degree had graduated from a university. By 2009, this proportion had also increased, but at a slower pace, to 56%.

Women largely account for the increase in the percentage of university graduates among people whose parents did not have a degree.

In 1986, 10% of women whose parents were not graduates had a degree. By 2009, that percentage had almost tripled to 28%. The gain for men was more modest; the proportion rose from 14% in 1986 to 18% in 2009.

For second-generation immigrants (those with at least one parent born outside Canada), social background had less of an impact on the probability of completing university than for people whose parents were born in Canada.

For example, in 2009, among people with at least one parent born outside Canada, 30% of those with parents who were not university graduates had a university degree. This compares with 62% of those with at least one parent who had a degree. In other words, the proportion was twice as high for people with parents who graduated from university.

However, for people with two Canadian-born parents, the relative difference between the two groups was 2.5 times greater. About 21% of people with parents who were not graduates had a university degree, compared with 53% of those with at least one parent who had a degree.

Note: This study explores whether intergenerational mobility in university completion has been increasing in recent years. To address that question, data from 12 cycles of the General Social Survey from 1986 to 2009 were used. The analysis covers Canadian-born people between the ages of 25 and 39.

Definitions, data sources and methods: survey numbers, including related surveys, 3894, 4500, 4501, 4503, 4504, 4505 and 5024.

The article "Intergenerational education mobility: University completion in relation to parents' education level" is now available in the August 2011 online issue of Canadian Social Trends, no. 92 (11-008-X, free), available from the Key resource module of our website under Publications.

For more information, or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Client Services (613-951-5979;, Social and Aboriginal Statistics Division.