The role of the shared environment in college attainment: An adoption study

Elise L. Anderson, Gretchen R.B. Saunders, Emily A. Willoughby, William G. Iacono, Matt McGue

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective: College attainment is one of the few phenotypes to have substantial variance accounted for by environmental factors shared by reared-together relatives. The shared environment is implicated by the consistently strong parent-to-offspring transmission of college attainment. The mechanisms underlying this relationship remain unclear. We use genetically informative methods with a longitudinal, adoption sample to identify possible environmental mechanisms underlying parent-offspring college transmission. Method: Data were drawn from the Sibling Interaction and Behavior Study (SIBS), which includes 409 adoptive and 208 nonadoptive families, consisting of two offspring followed from adolescence into young adulthood and their rearing parents. Four domains of environmental mechanisms were examined: (a) skill enhancement; (b) academic support; (c) material advantage; and (d) supportive family environment. Results: Both shared environmental and genetic factors contributed to the parent-offspring transmission of college attainment. However, highly educated parents did not appear to be increasing their adopted offspring's attainment through skill development. The environmental factors that were associated with increased odds of offspring college attainment were mother's academic expectations and family income. Conclusions: While complete mediation of the parent-offspring transmission of college attainment was not identified, the results shed light on some of the mechanisms associated with the common environment variance in the college attainment phenotype.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)580-593
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of personality
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: Preparation of this manuscript was supported by the John Templeton Foundation as part of their Genetics and Human Agency initiative (Grant Number 60780), by the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (AA11886), and the National Institute of Mental Health (MH066140).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Wiley Periodicals LLC


  • adoption
  • college attainment
  • intergeneration transmission
  • shared environment

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural


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