Cognitive, Noncognitive, and Family Background Contributions to College Attainment: A Behavioral Genetic Perspective

Matt McGue, Aldo Rustichini, William G. Iacono

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Scopus citations


There is considerable evidence that college attainment is associated with family background and cognitive and noncognitive skills. Behavioral genetic methods are used to determine whether the family background effect is mediated through cognitive and noncognitive skill development. We analyze data from two longitudinal behavioral genetic studies: the Minnesota Twin Family Study, consisting of 1,382 pairs of like-sex twins and their parents, and the Sibling Interaction and Behavior Study, consisting of 409 adoptive and 208 nonadoptive families with two offspring and their rearing parents. Cognitive ability, noncognitive skills, and family background are all associated with offspring college attainment. Biometric analysis shows that the intergenerational transmission of college attainment owes to both genetic and shared environmental factors. The shared environmental influence was not due to highly educated parents fostering noncognitive skill development in their children, and there was limited evidence that they foster cognitive skill development. The environmental transmission of educational attainment does not appear to be a consequence of highly educated parents fostering cognitive and noncognitive skill development. Alternative mechanisms are needed to explain the strong shared environmental influence on college attainment. Possibilities include academic expectations, social network effects, and the economic benefits of having wealthy parents.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)65-78
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of personality
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 2017

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© 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.


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