Keeping it in the family: siblings shape university choices

Sociologists demonstrate that brothers and sisters influence the courses students pick

August 28, 2019
Three brothers fishing
Source: Alamy

Siblings have a significant but largely unexamined impact on what young people study at university, research has shown.

Maaike van der Vleuten, assistant professor in sociology at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands, had already studied how the occupations of mothers influence what their children study at university – and in particular how they increase the kinds of gender differences that see more boys studying sciences and more girls opting for the humanities and social sciences.

Given that older brothers and sisters “are very important for where younger siblings get their information from in deciding on their educational career”, Dr van der Vleuten told Times Higher Education, she was keen to discover “whether the choice of university subjects is also influenced by older siblings” and whether they, too, exacerbated the existing gender divide.

She presented the results of her research at the European Sociological Association’s annual conference in Manchester last week.

Dr van der Vleuten drew on data from a wide-ranging online survey of pupils in two or three classes from each of about 100 randomly selected Dutch schools, who were followed from the ages of 14 to 20. From this, she extracted details of what 2,923 of them studied at university, along with what their older siblings had studied. She also had information from a separate questionnaire in which their parents provided details about their occupations.

In all subject areas, Dr van der Vleuten said, “younger siblings [tended to] follow their older siblings’ field of study”, especially when they were of the same sex. Neither age gaps nor “educational level” seemed to matter, which meant that “all older siblings are equally important”. “Having two siblings in similar fields” appeared to trump any influence from parents’ occupational choices.

Broadly speaking, said Dr van der Vleuten, parents and siblings “seem about equally influential” in field-of-study choices. Yet although siblings could certainly help to “pass on” pre-existing gender differences in such choices, they – unlike mothers – did not actually “heighten [such] gender divisions”.

If we want to get more girls studying science, therefore, there is little point in schools “specifically focusing on the sibling influence”, she said, although they should certainly look at “interacting more with the parents”.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.