How do grandparents’ and parents’ educational attainments influence parents’ educational expectations for children?

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Highly educated parents hold high educational expectations for their children, which influence children’s motivation and achievement in school. However, it is unclear whether grandparents’ (G1) education influences parents’ (G2) expectations for children (G3) independently of, or in interaction with, parents’ own education. We address this question using data from 477 families in the US Youth Development Study, which has followed a cohort of young people from adolescence through adulthood. Using mixed models to account for shared characteristics of children in the same family, our results demonstrate both main and interaction effects. First, they indicate that grandparents influence parents’ expectations for their children directly. Grandparents’ income and the educational expectations they held for their G2 children when they were in high school predict the G2 parents’ expectations for their own children, even after controlling G2 college attendance. G1 college attendance does not directly affect G2 expectations for G3 after accounting for other relevant family characteristics. However, G1 college attendance moderates the effect of G2 college attendance on their expectations for G3. If G1 did not attend college, G2 college attendance does not significantly heighten their expectations for G3. But G2 college attendance does significantly boost their expectations for G3 if G1 also attended college. We partially replicate these findings using nationally representative data from the US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – Child and Young Adult cohort. This study highlights the need to expand the scope of status attainment research beyond the parent–child dyad to examine the influence of prior generations.

Abstract

Highly educated parents hold high educational expectations for their children, which influence children’s motivation and achievement in school. However, it is unclear whether grandparents’ (G1) education influences parents’ (G2) expectations for children (G3) independently of, or in interaction with, parents’ own education. We address this question using data from 477 families in the US Youth Development Study, which has followed a cohort of young people from adolescence through adulthood. Using mixed models to account for shared characteristics of children in the same family, our results demonstrate both main and interaction effects. First, they indicate that grandparents influence parents’ expectations for their children directly. Grandparents’ income and the educational expectations they held for their G2 children when they were in high school predict the G2 parents’ expectations for their own children, even after controlling G2 college attendance. G1 college attendance does not directly affect G2 expectations for G3 after accounting for other relevant family characteristics. However, G1 college attendance moderates the effect of G2 college attendance on their expectations for G3. If G1 did not attend college, G2 college attendance does not significantly heighten their expectations for G3. But G2 college attendance does significantly boost their expectations for G3 if G1 also attended college. We partially replicate these findings using nationally representative data from the US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth – Child and Young Adult cohort. This study highlights the need to expand the scope of status attainment research beyond the parent–child dyad to examine the influence of prior generations.

Key messages

  • This study considers how grandparents influence parents’ educational expectations for their children.

  • Grandparents’ expectations for parents’ education (when they were adolescents) are positively related to parents’ expectations for their own children.

  • The effect of parents’ education on expectations for children depends on grandparents’ education.

  • The two-generation model of status attainment should be expanded to consider three or more generations.

Introduction

The transmission of inequality across family generations is a central focus of stratification research (Beller and Hout, 2006; Bowles et al, 2008; Cunha and Heckman, 2008; Bloome and Western, 2011; Ferguson and Ready, 2011). Since post-secondary educational attainment is increasingly necessary for career establishment and economic sufficiency in modern societies (Ganzeboom et al, 1991), considerable attention has been directed to the ways parents promote or limit their children’s educational success (Crosnoe et al, 2002; Lareau, 2003; Taylor et al, 2004; Conger and Donnellan, 2007). Emphasis on parental resources, as a source of persistence of educational inequality across generations, follows from a prevalent assumption that the influence of grandparents’ attainments on those of grandchildren is fully mediated by the socio-economic resources of the parent generation (Anderson et al, 2018). Scholars have ignored the possibility that grandparents’ accomplishments and attitudes might influence parental orientations towards their children’s educational achievement.

Although research on the attainment process is often limited to two generations in the nuclear family, there is reason to extend its study beyond the parent–child dyad due to mounting evidence that grandparents and even earlier generations, do matter (Mare, 2011; Chan and Boliver, 2013). With increase in longevity, grandparents play both a lengthier and more important role in the lives of grandchildren than in prior historical periods (Lauterbach, 2002; Hagestad, 2006). At the same time, declining fertility has made grandparental concern more concentrated on fewer grandchildren (Hagestad, 2006). Grandparents are poised to influence parental assessments of their children’s socio-economic prospects, especially if grandparents are willing to provide monetary support for grandchildren’s college attendance (Mortimer et al, 2017).

The level of parental educational expectations for their children is a pivotal variable in the influential Wisconsin status attainment model. The present study examines grandparental influence on this critical component of the attainment process. Drawing on data collected over a 24-year period from 477 grandparent–parent pairs by the Youth Development Study (YDS), we find evidence that both grandparents’ and parents’ educational attainment should be taken into account to fully understand parents’ anticipation of their children’s educational success. Grandparents’ educational expectations for their children, as adolescents, also predicted their adult children’s expectations for their own children many years later. We partially replicate the YDS analysis with data collected over a 37-year period from a nationally representative sample of 3,611 grandparent–parent pairs in the National Longitudinal Study of Youth – Child and Young Adult cohort (NLSY-CYA). Grandparental education is found to moderate the effect of parental education on parental educational expectations for their children in both studies, but the character of this effect differs.

Parental educational expectations in the intergenerational process of attainment

The classic model of status attainment identifies parental expectations of the educational attainment of their children as a key variable (Sewell and Hauser, 1975; Hauser et al, 1983; Morgan, 2005). According to this model, socio-economic status influences parental expectations and encouragement of children’s success in the educational sphere, which, in turn, predict children’s achievement-related attitudes and behaviours (Kohn et al, 1986; Hitlin, 2006; Gregg and Washbrook, 2011; Mortimer et al, 2017). Attainment research over the past several decades documents positive effects of parental educational attainment and educational expectations on children’s educational aspirations and plans (Sewell and Hauser, 1975; 1980; Warren et al, 2002; Bozick et al, 2010; Andrew and Hauser, 2011; Reynolds and Johnson, 2011), as well as children’s academic performance and attainment (Crosnoe et al, 2002; Taylor et al, 2004; Fergusson et al, 2008). Whereas most studies focus on adolescents, links between parental education and educational expectations, as well as between parental expectations and children’s achievement, have also been observed in families with very young children (Englund et al, 2004; Davis-Kean, 2005).

Higher education has expanded greatly over the past several decades in the United States, and this expansion is reflected in both parents’ educational expectations for their children and children’s own educational aspirations and plans (Reynolds et al, 2006; Spera et al, 2009; Schoon, 2010; Chowdry et al, 2011; Reynolds and Johnson, 2011). Still, the basic tenets of the status attainment model have been upheld across historical time despite these upward shifts and dramatic changes in the society, the economy, technology and the culture at large. Whereas adolescents’ educational aspirations and plans are now less closely tied to objective indicators of educational success (student grades and curricular track, for example) than previously (Reynolds et al, 2006), they continue to predict college enrolment (Eccles et al, 2004) and long-term educational and occupational attainments (Ashby and Schoon, 2010; Farkas, 2011; Jacob and Linkow, 2011; Reynolds and Johnson, 2011). Given the importance of parental educational expectations in promoting the acquisition of lofty educational plans in their children, understanding the sources of parental expectations for children is critical. From the large corpus of status attainment research, we know that parents’ own educational attainment is associated with high educational expectations for their children, but might grandparents’ educational biographies and expectations also matter?

Do grandparental education and educational expectations influence parental expectations?

There is reason to expect that grandparent education and attitudes would influence parental educational expectations for their children. Grandparents have become increasingly important in the lives of their adult children and grandchildren, especially when there is instability and hardship in the parent generation (Bengtson, 2001; Bengtson et al, 2002; Lauterbach, 2002; Hagestad, 2006; Ferguson and Ready, 2011; Mare, 2011; Bengtson et al, 2013). Grandparents provide financial and ‘in kind’ support to young families; they also offer less-tangible supports, serving as role models to grandchildren, helping to perpetuate familial traditions, and fostering cross-generational solidarity (Bengtson and Harootyan, 1994; King and Elder, 1997). Grandparents’ socio-economic status and orientations may reflect long-term ‘idiocultures’ of achievement (Fine, 1979; Swartz, 2008), influencing both their children and their grandchildren.

Most extant research on grandparental influence on grandchildren interrogates whether grandparental effects on grandchild outcomes occur independently of parental resources that presumably were also subject to grandparental influence (Anderson et al, 2018). However, this issue is not the focus of the present study. We instead investigate the impact of grandparents on their adult children’s educational expectations, as parents, for their own children. We are specifically interested in whether parents’ educational attainments have differential impacts on their expectations for their children, depending on their own parents’ (that is, the grandparents’) educational attainment.

It is useful to conceptualise grandparental influence on the educational expectations of parents via the concepts of resource multiplication and substitution (Ross and Mirowsky, 2011). The first model predicts that individuals will have the best outcomes when they have multiple resources; resources may enhance the effects of one another. A second model instead contends that resources can effectively substitute for one another; if one resource is unavailable, another resource can compensate for it, yielding positive outcomes that may be as strong as when multiple resources are present.

Applied to grandparental influence, a resource multiplication model would predict that if both grandparents and parents have higher educational attainment, high parental expectations for the third generation will be the most likely. In this case, both the grandparents’ and the parents’ educational attainments provide a positive ‘press’, perhaps reinforcing one another, promoting parents’ anticipation that their children will also be successful in the educational realm. Students may have more favourable experiences in college when there is a family history of college attendance. Parents who had gone to college could help their children navigate seemingly inscrutable and complex issues surrounding admission, course selection, financial aid, time management and so on. Thus, first-generation college students may have a less sanguine experience of college than those whose parents paved the way for them. Their families will probably be less affluent than most of their college classmates, making it necessary for them to work long hours, often away from campus, thus removing them from college social life. They may be ignored, even ostracised, by their peers (Armstrong and Hamilton, 2015) and be more likely to drop out. Given this less-than-optimal college experience, they may be less hopeful about college prospects, or even the desirability of college, for their own children. This scenario renders the resource multiplication model plausible, as both grandparent and parent college experience would be necessary for the development of high parental educational expectations for the third generation of children.

However, if a resource substitution process governed the development of parental expectations for children, the college ‘resource’ in either the grandparent or the parent generation would foster a high level of parental expectation. For example, if the parent did not attend college, simply having a history of higher educational attainment in the prior generation could make college attendance/completion a seemingly realistic outcome for the third generation. Though the parent did not ‘make it’, the grandparent’s educational success would provide a role model, a template for college achievement. Conversely, if the grandparent did not go to college, college experience on the part of the parent would be sufficient to instil high educational expectations for children.

As this brief review suggests, grandparents may influence parents’ educational expectations for their children directly or indirectly. G1 education might affect G2 parental expectations directly, as grandparental college experience heightens parental expectations for their children. An indirect effect would occur if grandparental educational expectations for their G2 children mediated the effect of their education on G2 parental expectations. Grandparental education might also moderate the effects of parental education on parental educational expectations, according to resource substitution or resource multiplication principles. Alternatively, it is possible that neither model receives empirical support; in that case we would conclude that parental education has a uniform effect on their educational expectations for their children, irrespective of the educational attainment of the preceding generation.

The present study

Despite the well-demonstrated role of parental expectations in the attainment process, and mounting evidence that grandparents’ attainments influence the actual achievement of grandchildren, no study of which we are aware has specifically focused on grandparental influence on the educational expectations of parents. We begin with the assumption that college-educated parents are a diverse group; some may have upheld a long-standing family tradition of college attendance, extending back to grandparents and perhaps to prior generations; other parents are first-generation college students. We ask whether such familial history of educational attainment influences parental educational expectations for their children. That is, do college-educated parents have higher educational expectations for their children if their own parents were also college-educated? Or is it just their own educational attainment that matters for anticipating educational success in the third generation? If only grandparents had college experience, would this be sufficient to heighten parental educational expectations? In addition to investigating grandparental and parental educational attainments, we interrogate whether grandparental educational expectations predict parental educational expectations. That is, is the expectation for high educational achievement transmitted directly across generations? Finally, we assess whether grandparental income may also influence parental educational expectations for their children.

Data and measures

In this study we leverage intergenerational prospective data from the YDS and partially replicate this analysis with data from the NLSY-CYA cohort. The YDS began with a random sample of 1,139 ninth-grade students (G2, the second generation) in public high schools in St. Paul, Minnesota in the 1987–88 academic year. The sample reflects the racial composition of St. Paul at the time, with 65% identifying as White, 11% Hmong and 9% African American. Comparing this panel to data from the 1990 census confirmed that the YDS families’ demographic characteristics are generally similar to the St. Paul population and to US socio-economic indicators. Because the sample was restricted to public school students, it under-represents youth from high-income families who are more likely to attend private schools (Mortimer, 2003).

Youth were surveyed annually through high school between 1988 and 1991, then nearly every other year through to 2011. The YDS also surveyed the parents (G1) of the youth cohort in 1988 and 1991. The G1 surveys collected information about their educational attainment, income and the educational expectations they held for their G2 adolescent children. In the most recent 2011 G2 survey, 66% of the original general sample (non-Hmong) cohort participated (Hmong had higher rates of attrition). Men, non-Whites, youth whose parents were not employed in 1988, and youth whose parents held lower educational expectations for them were less likely to be retained in the study. G1 income, education and family structure did not predict survey retention. Of all 696 G2 respondents in 2011, 537 reported having children. Of these parents, 38 Hmong respondents were dropped because of their unique cultural traditions and experiences, which led to a lack of equivalence between Hmong G2 adolescents and the other respondents for many YDS measures. Another 22 respondents were dropped because they had missing data on the dependent variable or on educational attainment for either G2 or G1. The final sample includes 477 families.

In this analytic sample, some families were missing data on covariates. Specifically, one family each (0.2%) had missing data on G1 expectations and family structure, six (1.3%) were missing information on G1 income, and 32 (6.7%) were missing data on G2 income. To retain as many cases as possible, missing data were imputed using the Multiple Imputation with Chained Equations (MICE) function in Stata. MICE reduces bias in statistical analysis provided that the data are missing at random, though it is not able to correct for data that are not missing at random (Little and Rubin, 2002).

Descriptive statistics for this sample are reported in Table 1. The main predictors are the educational attainment of G2 and G1 reported in 2011 and 1988 respectively. G1 education refers to the higher educational attainment reported by the G1 parents (that is, if two G1s were included in the study, we used the higher level; for single parent G1 families, there was just one educational level). We dichotomise G2 and G1 education as low (high school completion or less) or high (some college completion or more). Reflecting long-term expansion in higher education, 82% of G2s obtained some post-secondary education; 65% of G1s did so. The YDS sample used in the present analyses has higher education levels than the national population, but it is broadly representative of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area. For example, 65% of Minneapolis-St. Paul residents aged 40–49 in the 1990 census (approximately matching the G1 sample) reported at least one year of college education; similarly, 72% of Minneapolis-St. Paul residents aged 35–39 in the 2011 American Community Survey (approximately matching the G2 sample) reported at least one year of college (Ruggles et al, 2020). The higher rate of college attendance among our G2 sample than in the corresponding population in the American Community Survey could be the result of educational selection in survey retention.

Table 1:

Descriptive statistics for YDS sample.

VariableMeanStandard DeviationMin.Max.
OverallBetweenWithin
Level 1 Characteristics (N = 1,107)
G2 expectations for G3 edu. attainment
 Less than high school2%
 igh school6%
 Some college19%
 Bachelor’s degree51%
 Master’s degree13%
 PhD or professional degree9%
G3 child age10.65.685.003.33026
Level 2 Characteristics (N = 477)
G2 attend college82%
G2 race (non-White)21%
G2 logged income10.91.650.013.1
G2 stable union59%
G2 number of children2.41.1016
G1 attend college65%
G1 logged income10.90.748.512.2
G1 expectations for G2 edu. attainment
 Less than high school1%
 High school13%
 Some college28%
 Bachelor’s degree34%
 Master’s degree12%
PhD or professional degree11%
G1 family structure (two-parent intact)56%

Note: For standard deviation, ‘overall’ represents the SD for all children or families considered independently. Because the children are clustered within families, we also present their SD ‘between’ and ‘within’ families.

The dependent variable is the expectation that G2 parents held for their G3 children’s educational attainment. The 477 families in our study contained 1,107 G3 children. Parents predicted how far each child would go in school using a six-unit ordinal scale (1 = less than high school, 2 = high school, 3 =some college / 2-year degree, 4 = bachelor’s, 5 = master’s, 6 = PhD or professional degree). Approximately 73% of G3 children were expected to earn at least a bachelor’s degree by their G2 parents. It should be noted that 79% of G2 parents (377/477) reported educational expectations for more than one G3 child. Although most held the same expectation for all their children, 41% (153/377) reported different expectations for their children. Because of this, we model each child within a family as a separate (though correlated) observation. G1 expectations for G2 educational attainment were measured using the same ordinal scale as the dependent variable. Approximately 57% of G1 parents expected their G2 adolescent children to earn at least a bachelor’s degree.

In the statistical analysis, we model G2 conditional average educational expectations as a function of G1 and G2 educational attainments; the G3 child’s age (mean age is 10.6), since parental expectations may change as children grow older and reveal their own propensities for higher education; plus other characteristics of the G2 parents and G1 grandparents. Specifically, we control G2 race (21% were non-White), logged household income (mean 10.9, approximately $54,200 per year), whether the G2 respondent was in a stable union (married with no history of divorce, 59%) and the number of children in the family (mean 2.4) in 2011. The G1 variables we control (all measured in 1988) include logged household income, family structure and expectations for G2 educational attainment. G1 income was originally reported as an ordinal scale from 1 (less than $5,000) to 13 (greater than $100,000). Before log transforming, we recoded each response to the midpoint of the income range, using $110,000 for the highest category. Then we adjusted the income value for inflation to be comparable to G2 income. The G1 logged income mean was 10.9, or approximately $54,200 in 2011 dollars, which is the same as the average G2 income. G1 family structure was dichotomised to indicate whether the G2 lived with both biological/adoptive G1 parents or had some other family arrangement in 1988; 56% of G2s resided, as adolescents, in a two-parent intact family. As noted, 57% of G1 grandparents expected G2 adolescents to complete at least a bachelor’s degree.

This study highlights the combination of G1 and G2 educational attainments. Table 2 shows the summary of this distribution as a two-by-two matrix. Each cell represents a relevant intergenerational educational mobility group: those with intergenerationally low education (39/477 = 8.2% of families), those who attain less than their parents (46/477 = 9.6% of families), those who attain more than their parents (129/477 = 27.0% of families) and those with intergenerationally high education (263/477 = 55.1% of families).

Table 2:

Cross tabulation of G1 and G2 educational attainment

G1 educationG2 education
High school or lessSome college or moreTotal
High school or less39 (8.2%)129 (27.0%)168 (35.2%)
Some college or more46 (9.6%)263 (55.1%)309 (64.8%)
Total85 (17.8%)392 (82.2%)477 (100%)

Note: Percentages of total sample shown in parentheses.

Statistical analysis

We treat the dependent variable as a continuous measure and model the conditional average of G2 parents’ expectations for their G3 children as a function of the child’s age, G2 and G1 educational attainment, and other relevant G2 and G1 characteristics. When multiple children are clustered within families, data may be correlated. Children from the same family probably share many characteristics that are not modelled, and this violates the assumption of independent observations required by standard generalised linear models. We use hierarchical mixed models to account for this correlation. The mixed models include fixed effects for the level 1 (child) and level 2 (family) characteristics plus a random intercept for each family. The random intercept allows each family to deviate from the constant term and absorbs unmodelled characteristics that children in the same family share. The estimated coefficients for the fixed effects are interpreted as conditional effects for a given family rather than marginal effects for the whole population.

We present five models. First, we estimate G2 educational expectations for G3 as a function of G3 age and whether G2 attended college. Model 2 adds an indicator of G1 college attendance to Model 1 to estimate the additive effects of educational attainment in the prior generation. Model 3 adds the full list of G2 and G1 covariates to Model 2 to examine whether the additive effects of G1 and G2 college attendance are explained by these other family characteristics. Model 3 enables assessment of whether G1 expectations for G2 adolescents predict G2’s expectations for G3, when they are parents approximately two decades later. The final two models investigate whether G1 education moderates the impact of G2 education on expectations for G3. Model 4 repeats Model 2 and adds an interaction term between G1 and G2 college attendance. Model 5 repeats Model 4 and includes the list of family covariates.

Our main results are based on OLS regression models that treat the dependent variable as continuous. OLS regression is a legitimate option when the dependent variable has more than five categories and may be preferred due to ease of interpretation (Menard, 2001). However, these models may be biased if some ‘steps’ along the dependent variable are greater than others (for instance, if there is a greater ‘distance’ between level 1 ‘less than high school’ and level 2 ‘high school’ than there is between level 4 ‘bachelor’s degree’ and level 5 ‘master’s degree’). Ordered logistic regression models treat the dependent variable as categorical, while maintaining the rank ordering of the outcome. As a robustness check, we estimated ordered logistic regression models and compared the results with our OLS models.

Supplementary analysis

The YDS is uniquely suited to answer our research questions because it includes measures of educational attainment and educational expectations for children in two generations. However, it is limited by the fact that the sample is somewhat small and not representative of the broader population of American families. To test the generalisability of the results, we performed a partial replication of the YDS analysis using nationally representative data from the NLSY-CYA. The NLSY-CYA began with a survey of 12,686 youth (G2) aged 14–22 and their parents (G1) in 1979 and followed the G2 sample through adulthood. The Child and Young Adult cohort enrolled G3 children of women in the NLSY sample. This supplementary analysis relies on data for 8,051 G3 children clustered within 3,611 grandparent–parent dyads. These data contain similar variables to the ones used in our main YDS-based analyses, including G1 and G2 educational attainment, G2 expectations for G3 educational attainment, and key socio-demographic characteristics of each family generation. However, G1 expectations for G2 educational attainment are not measured in the NLSY-CYA. The data also differ significantly from the YDS in year during which the dependent variable was observed (ranging from 1988 to 2016 in NLSY-CYA; 2011 in YDS), sex of the G2 parent (only mothers were included in NLSY-CYA), and birth cohort of the G2 parent (10–15 years earlier in the NLSY-CYA). Therefore, we consider this supplementary analysis as constituting only a partial replication of the main results.

Findings

Main results: Youth Development Study

The estimated coefficients for each model are displayed in Table 3. In Model 1, we observe that on average G2 parents who attended college reported significantly higher educational expectations for their children than those who did not (β = 0.595, p < .001). This model thus confirms that parental educational attainment is associated with the expectations they hold for their children in the way we would expect. G3 age was significantly negatively associated with parental educational expectations (β = −0.043, p < .001), indicating that parents tend to have lower expectations for older than younger children within their families.

Table 3:

Mixed OLS models predicting G2 educational expectations for G3 children in YDS

(1)(2)(3)(4)(5)
Fixed effects
Level 1 characteristics
G3 Child age−0.043***−0.042***−0.032***−0.042***−0.032***
(0.005)(0.005)(0.005)(0.005)(0.005)
Level 2 characteristics
G2 Parent attend college0.595***0.561***0.383***0.2610.137
(0.100)(0.099)(0.096)(0.148)(0.140)
G2 Non-White0.1390.141
(0.090)(0.089)
G2 Logged income0.0450.042
(0.025)(0.025)
G2 Stable union0.0660.056
(0.077)(0.076)
G2 Number of children−0.141***−0.141***
(0.032)(0.032)
G1 Grandparent attend college0.301***0.129−0.122−0.221
(0.079)(0.079)(0.175)(0.166)
G1 Logged income0.133*0.137*
(0.056)(0.055)
G1 Expectations for G2 edu.0.127***0.126***
(0.035)(0.035)
G1 Two-parent intact family0.1110.102
(0.077)(0.077)
G1 College * G2 college0.531**0.440*
(0.196)(0.183)
Constant3.974***3.785***1.829**4.011***2.024***
(0.112)(0.121)(0.608)(0.146)(0.612)
Number of children1,1071,1071,1071,1071,107
Number of families477477477477477

Data: Youth Development Study. Missing data for control variables were imputed.

Note: Standard errors in parentheses. G1 variables measured in 1988. G2 and G3 variables measured in 2011.

* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001

In Model 2, we observe a direct additive benefit of G1 college attendance for G2 expectations of G3 educational attainment. G2 parents reported higher expectations for their children’s education (β = 0.301, p < .001) if a G1 grandparent had attended college even after controlling G2 parental college attendance. This simple model suggests that the effect of G2 college attendance on G2 parents’ educational expectations is not explained by grandparental educational attainment. In fact, the effect of G2 parents’ college attendance is almost identical in Models 1 and 2.

Model 3 adds the other family covariates to Model 2. Doing so reduces the estimated effect of G2 college attendance on expectations for G3 education by nearly one third (from 0.561 to 0.383), though it remains statistically significant (p < .001). By contrast, the estimated additive effect of G1 college attendance is reduced by nearly 60% (from 0.301 to 0.129) and is no longer significant. Several family characteristics significantly predict G2 expectations for G3 independently of intergenerational college attendance. The fact that G1 educational expectations for G2 has a significant effect on G2’s expectations for G3 (β = 0.127, p<0.001) suggests direct intergenerational transference of educational expectations, a component, perhaps, of family ‘idioculture’. Not surprisingly, given the substantial cost of higher education, parental educational expectations are lower in families where G2 reported more children (β = −0.141, p < .001), and expectations are higher in families where G1 reported higher logged household income (β = 0.133, p < .05). Grandparental economic resources may bolster G2 parents’ expectations for children if grandparents are expected to contribute to G3’s college expenses. G2 race and family structure in either generation did not significantly influence parental educational expectations for G3. This model suggests that the direct additive effect of G1 college attendance on parental expectations for G3, observed in Model 2, is explained by other family characteristics. This pattern suggests that grandparental educational attendance affects parental educational expectations indirectly through G1 income and G1 educational expectations for G2 adolescents.

In Model 4, we test whether G1 education moderates the effect of G2 expectations for G3 by including an interaction term. The significant interaction indicates that, on average, parents who attend college experience a greater boost to their expectations for their own children’s education if the G1 grandparents were also college attenders. G2 parental college attendance in the absence of grandparental college attendance, signified in this model by the coefficient of .261, is no longer statistically significant. To more clearly interpret these coefficients, we graphically display predicted educational expectations for G3 based on G2 and G1 college attendance in Figure 1. This figure shows a significant positive effect of G2 college attendance on expectations for G3 among families where G1 attended college. In families where G1 did not attend college, the effect of G2 college attendance on expectations for G3 is much shallower and non-significant. This suggests that upwardly mobile respondents did not report significantly higher educational expectations for their children than their counterparts with stable low patterns of intergenerational education. This pattern clearly supports a resource multiplication model.

In the graph, the horizontal axis has two markers; non-college on the left and college on the right. The vertical axis is scaled from 3 to 4.5 in increments of 0.5 unit. The graph shows that the line for grandparent non-college is a rising line that rises from 3.55 to 3.7 and that the line for grandparent college is a rising line that rises from 3.45 to 4.25. All values are estimated.
Figure 1:

Predicted parental expectations for children’s education by parent and grandparent college attendance in YDS.

Citation: Longitudinal and Life Course Studies 2022; 10.1332/175795921X16160914636911

Model 5 adds the family covariates to Model 4. The estimated coefficient for the interaction term is slightly attenuated (from .531 to .440); however, it remains significant. This suggests that the boost to expectations for G3 education in families with intergenerational patterns of college attendance is not fully explained by other family characteristics. Importantly, the direct effect of G1 educational expectations for their G2 children when they were adolescents on G2 parental educational expectations is hardly altered and remains statistically significant, indicating that it is not accounted for by other familial advantages.

To check the robustness of the main YDS results, we estimated the models using ordered logistic regression instead of OLS. Ordered logistic regression does not assume that the ‘distance’ between steps on the educational expectation scale are equal. The ordered logistic regression models reproduced the substantive conclusions of the OLS analysis, as no estimated coefficient changed in significance or direction.

Supplementary results – NLSY-CYA

We partially replicate the analysis with data from the NLSY-CYA. Descriptive statistics for the NLSY-CYA sample are provided in Appendix Tables A1 and A2. The outcome variable, G2 expectations for G3 educational attainment, has five levels in the NLSY-CYA (‘less than high school’ coded as 1, ‘high school’ coded as 2, ‘some college’ coded as 3, ‘Bachelor’s degree’ coded as 4 and ‘Master’s, PhD or professional degree’ coded as 5). The educational attainments of the G1 grandparents and G2 parents are considerably lower than the YDS, reflecting the national composition and representation of earlier birth cohorts in the NLSY-CYA. Only 23% of G1 and 42% of G2 attended college. The sample is also more racially diverse than the YDS, with just 51% of G2 mothers identifying as non-Hispanic White. Because of its larger size, the NLSY-CYA allows for greater specificity in the measurement of race/ethnicity and marital status. Given the long period over which data were collected, we added observation year to the NLSY-CYA analysis (YDS parental expectations for children were measured in a single year, 2011). Mothers also reported G3 child sex in the NLSY-CYA, while this variable is missing in the YDS. It should be noted that the NLSY-CYA does not contain a critically important variable for understanding the intergenerational persistence of educational expectations: G1’s expectations for the educational attainments of their own children, when the G2 parents were adolescents. However, the analyses are sufficiently similar to investigate the moderating hypotheses proposed here.

Coefficients from the supplementary NLSY-CYA models are presented in Table 4. Models 1–3 show generally similar results as the corresponding models in the YDS sample. G2 educational expectations have a negative association with G3 age and number of children in the family. Moreover, G1 and G2 education and income have a positive relationship with the outcome. These models also show that Black and Hispanic mothers reported higher educational expectations for their children than non-Hispanic White mothers, and that mothers who were currently or formerly married held higher expectations than those who were never married. Models 4 and 5 test – with and without additional covariate adjustment, respectively – whether the association between G2 education and the expectations they hold for their children differs by G1 education. The interaction term in both models is negative and statistically significant (p < .001). This suggests that college attendance matters less for parental expectations if their own G1 parents had attended college. The interpretation of this significant interaction term is aided by the plot in Figure 2.

Table 4:

Mixed OLS models predicting G2 educational expectations for G3 children in NLSY-CYA

(1)(2)(3)(4)(5)
Fixed Effects
Level 1 characteristics
G3 Child age−0.019***−0.017***−0.015**−0.017***−0.015**
(0.005)(0.005)(0.005)(0.005)(0.005)
G3 Child female0.228***0.227***0.225***0.227***0.225***
(0.019)(0.019)(0.019)(0.019)(0.019)
Observation year (cent. at 1998)0.027***0.026***0.024***0.026***0.025***
(0.002)(0.002)(0.002)(0.002)(0.002)
Level 2 characteristics
G2 parent attend college0.611***0.537***0.466***0.582***0.512***
(0.026)(0.027)(0.027)(0.030)(0.030)
G2 Race/ethnicity = Black0.112***0.111***
(0.032)(0.032)
G2 Race/ethnicity = Hispanic0.071*0.071*
(0.033)(0.033)
G2 Race/ethnicity = Other0.0600.060
(0.155)(0.154)
G2 Logged income0.035***0.035***
(0.008)(0.008)
G2 Marital status = married0.275***0.270***
(0.042)(0.042)
G2 Marital status = sep/div/wid0.124**0.118**
(0.042)(0.042)
G2 Number of children = 2−0.106*−0.103*
(0.041)(0.041)
G2 Number of children = 3−0.154***−0.148***
(0.043)(0.043)
G2 Number of children = 4+−0.347***−0.345***
(0.045)(0.045)
G1 Grandparent attend college0.265***0.210***0.416***0.365***
(0.032)(0.032)(0.055)(0.054)
G1 Logged income0.047***0.047***
(0.011)(0.011)
G1 Two-parent intact family0.0530.054*
(0.028)(0.027)
G1 College * G2 college−0.226***−0.233***
(0.067)(0.065)
Constant3.153***3.112***2.142***3.097***2.122***
(0.071)(0.071)(0.158)(0.071)(0.158)
Number of children8,0518,0518,0518,0518,051
Number of families3,6113,6113,6113,6113,611

Data: National Longitudinal Study of Youth. Missing data for control variables were imputed.

Note: Standard errors in parentheses.

* p < .05, ** p < .01, *** p < .001

In the graph, the horizontal axis has two markers; non-college on the left and college on the right. The vertical axis is scaled from 3 to 4.5 in increments of 0.2 unit. The graph shows that the line for grandparent non-college is a rising line that rises from 3.3 to 3.85 and that the line for grandparent college is a rising line that rises from 3.7 to 4.2. All values are estimated.
Figure 2:

Predicted parental expectations for children’s education by parent and grandparent college attendance in NLSY-CYA.

Citation: Longitudinal and Life Course Studies 2022; 10.1332/175795921X16160914636911

Overall, this partial replication provides mixed confirmation of our main results. As indicated in the YDS, the NLSY-CYA showed that G1 grandparental education and income positively influence G2 parental expectations for G3 children. These are important findings, underscored by the fact that they are observed in both the regional YDS and the national NLSY-CYA. Regarding the question whether G1 college attendance moderates the effect of G2 college attendance on expectations, the NLSY-CYA confirms that the interaction is significant. However, the direction of the interaction effect in the national data is opposite to that in the YDS, indicating no increase and, indeed, a decline in parental educational expectations when both resources (G1 and G2 college education) are present. In the final model, both G1 and G2 parent education retain significant positive effects on G2 expectations. This pattern provides support for a resource substitution model.

We further investigated the source of this discrepancy by estimating models with subsamples of the YDS and NLSY-CYA that were more comparable to one another (results not shown). Specifically, we estimated models using only non-Hispanic White mothers, mothers who attended public schools in adolescence, and using only observations later than 2004 in the NLSY-CYA, to match the YDS data more closely. We also estimate models using only YDS G2 mothers and only expectations for children aged 5–17, to better match the NLSY-CYA. In every model, the interaction effect was negative in the NLSY-CYA and positive in the YDS. Therefore, the discrepancy in this pattern between these samples remains unexplained.

Discussion

Sociological research is rich with intergenerational studies of status attainment. Life course researchers seek to understand how human biographies unfold within their social context, including the ‘linked lives’ (Elder et al, 2011) of grandparents, parents and children. Due to increased longevity and other social changes, more recent cohorts of Americans, as well as children in other modern societies, are more likely to be subject to the influence of their grandparents than were previous cohorts (Bengtson and Harootyan, 1994; King and Elder, 1997; Bengtson, 2001; Bengtson et al, 2002; Coall and Hertwig, 2010; Ferguson and Ready, 2011; Bengtson et al, 2013). In this study we examine grandparent influence on a key intervening variable in the status attainment process: parental educational expectations for their children. We analyse data obtained from grandparents and parents in a community-based longitudinal study (the YDS) and then partially replicate this study using similar data drawn from a nationally representative panel (the NLSY-CYA).

Both analyses confirm the oft-reported finding that parental education is a strong predictor of parental educational expectations, independent of the child’s age. However, both analyses also demonstrate that this two-generation model of transmission is improved by expanding the scope of study to include the grandparent generation. We find evidence in both data sets that grandparents play a role in the development of parental educational expectations for their children. Both indicate, directly or indirectly, that grandparental education and income have positive effects on parental educational expectations.

The potentially positive role of grandparents is also indicated by the observation in the YDS that G1 grandparent educational expectations for their G2 children, when those children were adolescents, have a positive effect on the G2 children’s expectations, as parents, for their own children approximately two decades later. This direct effect of grandparental expectations on parent expectations indicates transference of a family culture of achievement, the presence of an intergenerational ‘idioculture’ promoting high educational attainment. This finding could not be replicated in the NLSY-CYA due to the absence of information about G1’s educational expectations for G2.

Importantly, our investigation of an interaction effect, that is, whether G1 grandparent college attendance moderates the effect of G2 parental college attendance on G2 parental expectations for the educational attainment of G3 children, further underscores the potential importance of grandparents in both data sets. A significant interaction of G1 and G2 education in influencing G2 expectations is found in both samples. However, the direction of this effect differs. In the YDS, we find a pattern that clearly indicates resource multiplication. The combination of college experience on the part of both G1 grandparents and G2 parents has a significant positive effect on G2 parents’ expectations for G3. When this interaction is considered, we observe no benefit (in terms of higher parental educational expectations) when only the G2 parent has college experience.

Put another way, G2 college attendance has a significant positive effect on parental expectations for G3 only among YDS families in which G1 grandparents also attended college. Upwardly mobile G2 parents do not have higher educational expectations for their children than parents who did not attend college. Thus, YDS families with intergenerational patterns of higher educational attainment experience the best ‘return on their investment’, a clear example of resource multiplication. When both parents and grandparents have attended college, it may be assumed that the third generation of children would also be successful in the higher educational realm. Not just parental education, but grandparental education also, may contribute to inequality across families and the persistence of socio-economic attainment through generations.

Turning to the NLSY-CYA, we find a different pattern of moderation. Again, the interaction between grandparent and parent college attendance is significant, but in the opposite direction. The pattern of significant effects, positive for both grandparent and parent education, and negative for the interaction of the two, provides strong support for a resource substitution dynamic. Thus, the educational attainment of grandparents and parents compensate for one another in influencing parental orientations to their children’s achievement. Both parents’ education and grandparents’ education continue to have significant positive independent effects when the interaction term is included. The negative interaction coefficient suggests that no benefit is obtained from having college experience in both generations; instead, the juxtaposition of college education in both generations weakens parental educational expectations for children.

Taken together, the findings from both data sets highlight the potential role of grandparent educational attainment as an important but overlooked distal factor influencing parents’ expectations for their children. However, this operates in accord with either a resource multiplication (YDS) or a resource substitution (NLSY-CYA) model. How can we explain this perplexing divergence? We started this article by describing two hypothetical scenarios corresponding to resource multiplication and resource substitution models, without positing a preference for one or the other. We now find evidence that the combination of parents’ and grandparents’ educational attainment has a significant influence on parents’ expectations for children, but the direction of effect is different in the two data sets. Our attempts to understand this difference by selecting subsamples of each that are more comparable than the overall YDS and NLSY-CYA samples (limitation to non-Hispanic Whites, G2 mothers, G2 public school attenders and expectations for children of the same age, 5–17) were not fruitful. That is, the difference in pattern was robust across the various subsample specifications. We can only speculate now on the reasons for the divergence.

While we have alluded to ‘linked lives’, another possibly relevant tenet of life course theory is the ‘principle of time and place’, that is, ‘the life course of individuals is embedded and shaped by the historical times and places they experience over their lifetime’ (Elder et al, 2011: 12). First, with respect to time, YDS and NLSY-CYA G2s represent distinct birth cohorts. YDS G2 sample members (14 and 15 years old at the beginning of the study in 1988) were born in 1973–74; NLSY-CYA sample members’ (age 14–22 years old at baseline in 1979) birthdates range from 1957 to 1965. Of course, the YDS and NLSY-CYA G1 samples include multiple birth cohorts, but on the basis of their children’s ages at the outset of the two studies, we can assume that most YDS G1s were born more recently.

Recent decades spanning G1 and G2 lifetimes have seen a growing consensus among educators and economists, probably reflected in parents’ views, that at least some post-secondary education is necessary to meet the rising demand for well-educated and highly skilled ‘knowledge workers’. To fulfil this demand, more youth must obtain a college education. More Americans than ever before, especially women, have entered and completed post-secondary educational programmes (Blossfeld et al, 2016). It could be that in an era in which college education has become a near-universal aspiration, a context more typical for YDS G2s, it becomes necessary for an extra push (that is, from grandparents’ college experience) to heighten parents’ expectations. Moreover, expansion of higher education means that increasing numbers of students are first-generation college attenders. The YDS findings suggest that college attendance in this new wave of first-generation students may not so readily affect their aspirations for their children. As discussed in the introduction, these students may have had a more difficult college experience than those whose parents also attended college, which made them less sanguine in general about college for their children.

NLSY-CYA G2 parents, covering a span of birth cohorts, completed their educations at different times, but in comparison to YDS G2s, during periods when college was less expected and encompassed a more limited portion of the population. With less truncated educational aspirations, and less likelihood of being a first-generation college student, college experiences may have been more propitious in widening parents’ horizons for their G3 children.

The second dimension of the life course principle of time and place may also be relevant, and for much the same reasons. The YDS sample was drawn from a single community, St. Paul, in the Midwest. As already noted, residents of the state of Minnesota have somewhat higher educational attainment than the US population at large, accentuating the national trends we have described. In the YDS, 82% of G2 parents attended college. In this context of high educational attainment, it was apparently necessary for their own parents to have had college experience to increase G2’s expectations for their children. First-generation G2 college students have become increasingly prevalent, perhaps more so in Minnesota than elsewhere, dampening educational expectations for G3 children.

It should be noted that the analyses of both data sets have notable shortcomings. The structure of relationships captured in the analytic models constitute a skeletal and oversimplified framework for understanding the complex processes through which parental educational expectations arise. For example, parental expectations are found to reflect children’s cognitive abilities, achievement orientations and actual achievement (Spera et al, 2009; Zhang et al, 2011). Moreover, we could not analyse the effect of college completion among grandparents and parents because of generally low levels of educational attainment in both G1 generations and the limited sample size in the YDS. College completion by grandparents and parents may have even more salutary effects on parents’ educational expectations for their children than mere college attendance. Finally, the YDS and NLSY-CYA model specifications are not identical due to the inclusion of G1 parent expectations for G2 adolescents only in the YDS, the inclusion of G3 gender only in the NLSY-CYA, and the greater differentiation of key control variables in the NLSY-CYA.

But despite these limitations, the fact that survey data was obtained from grandparents and parents in both studies represents a considerable advantage over study designs that rely on surveys of only one generation about the socio-economic accomplishments or orientations of another. Unlike many studies, we do not have to rely on subjects’ retrospective accounts of their parents’ earlier educational expectations for them or their parents’ educational attainments. Importantly, single generation designs cannot address ‘soft’ characteristics, like parental educational expectations for their children, which may be transferred intergenerationally (Jæger, 2012).

Conclusion

Previous research has consistently demonstrated that parents’ expectations for their children’s educational attainment is a significant resource that influences children’s educational trajectories. We have expanded the scope of this research by taking a step back to consider the role of grandparents in the development of parental expectations for their children. Notably, in both the community-based and national samples we find evidence that grandparental education is positively associated with parents’ educational expectations for their offspring. In both studies, grandparental income heightens parental educational expectations. In the YDS, grandparent expectations for their children, measured when the YDS second generation parents were adolescents, significantly increase G2’s educational expectations for their own children when they become parents.

However, we find distinct moderating effects in the national and community-based samples. A resource multiplication model best represents the YDS findings; a resource substitution model describes the NLSY-CYA findings. Since we have not been successful in identifying the source of this difference via the examination of similar subsamples, we speculated about differences across time and place. However, convincing explanation of the perplexing divergence in findings in the community-based and nationally representative panels awaits further study. In an era of expanding higher education and increasing multigenerational influence, future multigeneration studies are required to disentangle the complex social forces of status transmission. The present study is an initial step in that direction.

Funding

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 programme (NICHD funded: T32HD095134) at the University of Minnesota provided valuable support for this paper.

Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank attendees of the 2019 Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies and the 2019 American Sociological Association meetings for their valuable feedback.

Data availability

Data from the Youth Development Study are available for download on ICPSR (https://www.icpsr.umich.edu/web/ICPSR/studies/24881). Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, including the Child and Young Adult cohort, are available for download from the National Longitudinal Studies website (https://www.nlsinfo.org/investigator/pages/login).

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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  • Sewell, W.H. and Hauser, R.M. (1975) Education, Occupation, and Earnings: Achievement in the Early Career, New York: Academic Press.

  • Sewell, W.H. and Hauser, R.M. (1980) The Wisconsin Longitudinal Study of social and psychological factors in aspirations and achievements, Research in Sociology of Education and Socialization, 1: 5999.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Spera, C., Wentzel, K.R. and Matto, H.C. (2009) Parental aspirations for their children’s educational attainment: relations to ethnicity, parental education, children’s academic performance, and parental perceptions of school climate, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 38(8): 114052. doi: 10.1007/s10964-008-9314-7

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Swartz, T.T. (2008) Family capital and the invisible transfer of privilege: intergenerational support and social class in early adulthood, New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 119 (Spring): 1124. doi: 10.1002/cd.206

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Taylor, L.C., Clayton, J.D. and Rowley, S.J. (2004) Academic socialization: understanding parental influence on children’s school-related development in the early years, Review of General Psychology, 8(3): 16378. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.8.3.163

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Warren, J.R., Sheridan, J.T. and Hauser, R.M. (2002) Occupational stratification across the life course: evidence from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, American Sociological Review, 67(3): 43255. doi: 10.2307/3088965

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zhang, Y., Haddad, E., Torres, B. and Chen, C. (2011) The reciprocal relationships among parents’ expectations, adolescents’ expectations, and adolescents’ achievement: a two-wave longitudinal analysis of the NELS data, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(4): 47989. doi: 10.1007/s10964-010-9568-8

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

Appendix Tables for the NLSY-CYA Analysis.

Table A1:

Descriptive statistics for NLSY-CYA sample

VariableMeanStandard DeviationMinMax
OverallBetweenWithin
Level 1 characteristics (N = 8,051)
G2 Expectations for G3 edu. attainment
 Less than high school2%
 High school18%
 Some college19%
 Bachelor’s degree45%
 Master’s, PhD, or professional degree16%
G3 Child age12.32.271.991.42517
G3 Child female49%
Observation year19995.064.662.7419882016
Level 2 characteristics (N = 3,611)
G2 Attend college42%
G2 Race/ethnicity
 Non-Hispanic, White51%
 Non-Hispanic, Black29%
 Hispanic19%
 Non-Hispanic, Other1%
G2 Logged income (2011 dollars)10.61.440.014.2
G2 Marital status
 Never married13%
 Married62%
 Separated/Divorced/Widowed25%
G2 Number of children
 117%
 241%
 326%
 4 or more16%
G1 Attend college23%
G1 Logged income (2011 dollars)10.51.240.012.4
G1 Family structure (two-parent intact)59%

Note: For standard deviation, ‘overall’ represents the SD for all children or families considered independently. Because the children are clustered within families, we also present their SD ‘between’ and ‘within’ families.

Table A2:

Cross tabulation of G1 and G2 educational attainment in NLSY-CYA

G1 educationG2 education
High school or lessSome college or moreTotal
High school or less1,876 (52.0%)888 (24.6%)2,764 (76.5%)
Some college or more218 (6.0%)629 (17.4%)847 (23.5%)
Total2,094 (58.0%)1,517 (42.0%)3,611 (100%)

Note: Percentages of total sample shown in parentheses.

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    Predicted parental expectations for children’s education by parent and grandparent college attendance in YDS.

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    Predicted parental expectations for children’s education by parent and grandparent college attendance in NLSY-CYA.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Taylor, L.C., Clayton, J.D. and Rowley, S.J. (2004) Academic socialization: understanding parental influence on children’s school-related development in the early years, Review of General Psychology, 8(3): 16378. doi: 10.1037/1089-2680.8.3.163

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Warren, J.R., Sheridan, J.T. and Hauser, R.M. (2002) Occupational stratification across the life course: evidence from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, American Sociological Review, 67(3): 43255. doi: 10.2307/3088965

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Zhang, Y., Haddad, E., Torres, B. and Chen, C. (2011) The reciprocal relationships among parents’ expectations, adolescents’ expectations, and adolescents’ achievement: a two-wave longitudinal analysis of the NELS data, Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 40(4): 47989. doi: 10.1007/s10964-010-9568-8

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 1 University of Minnesota, , USA

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