Believing and Achieving: Gendered Pathways Toward Upward Educational Mobility in the United States

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Little research has investigated the impact of adolescent motivational resources, other than educational plans, on adult educational attainment, or whether their effects differ by gender and social class. Data from the St. Paul Youth Development Study (n = 874, 55% female, 30% children of college graduates) are used to estimate a second-order latent motivation factor encompassing adolescent (age 15–16) educational plans, academic self-concept, economic self-efficacy, and mastery. Then, using logistic regression, the effect of this second-order factor on odds of college graduation in adulthood (ages 26–27 to 37–38) is estimated. Heterogenous effects of motivation by gender and parental education are investigated. The results show that the second-order motivation factor had strong positive effects on educational attainment after adjusting for family background variables. The effect of motivation did not differ by gender in the whole sample nor among children of college graduates. However, among children of less-educated parents, women were found to benefit more than men from these psychological assets for achieving upward educational mobility. These findings suggest that adolescent motivation, especially among U.S. women whose parents do not have college degrees, may be a resource for higher educational attainment.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Youth and Adolescence
StateAccepted/In press - 2020

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The Youth Development Study was supported by grants titled, “Work Experience and Mental Health: A Panel Study of Youth,” from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (HD44138) and the National Institute of Mental Health (MH42843). The findings and conclusions in this report are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the sponsors. The Center for Urban and Regional Affairs, the Minnesota Population Center (NICHD funded: P2CHD041023), and the Population Health training program (NICHD funded: T32HD095134) at the University of Minnesota provided valuable support for this paper.


  • Agency
  • Education
  • Gender
  • Intergenerational mobility

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