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Wonder How You'll Do in College? Look at Your Genes

Wonder How You'll Do in College? Look at Your Genes

By Clive Cookson



While environmental factors play a huge part in secondary school choices, performance is up to you.

By Clive Cookson

Families and schools have a substantial influence on whether or not young people go to college but no effect on how well students perform once they get there, according to the first study of genetic and environmental influences on higher education.

In an effort to disentangle the factors that determine college enrollment and performance, researchers at King’s College London studied 3,000 pairs of identical and nonidentical twins and 3,000 other people in the U.K. Results were published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Genetic factors account for 51 percent of differences between high school graduates in whether or not they go on to university. What the researchers call “shared environment” — mainly school and family background — accounts for 36 percent, while “non-shared environment,” reflecting individual circumstances, contributes the remaining 13 percent.

Achievement, measured by the student’s final degree class, is determined 46 percent by genetics and 53 percent by non-shared or individual environment.

Although the study did not look specifically at students’ socioeconomic background, the findings support the view that teenagers from poor and disadvantaged families are less likely than their more privileged counterparts to proceed to a college education for which their genes are well-suited. Researchers suggested that admissions policies should take more of these social factors into account.

“You would expect heritability — the genetic influence — to increase in a fairer and more equitable society,” says Emily Smith-Woolley, one member of the research team at King’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. 


An earlier study by King’s researchers showed that shared environment played a big role in secondary education, accounting for 40 percent of differences in whether students choose to take A levels.

Once someone gets to college, the contribution of “shared environment” declines to less than 1 percent. Achievement, measured by the student’s final degree class, is determined 46 percent by genetics and 53 percent by non-shared or individual environment.

“Unlike secondary school, where students tend to share educational experiences, university provides young people with greater opportunity to be independent and to carve out their interests based on their natural abilities and aptitudes,” says Ziada Ayorech, another King’s researcher.

“Students’ unique environments — such as new friends and new experiences — appear to be explaining differences in university achievement and the role of shared environment becomes less significant,” Ayorech says.

Apart from studying the overall contribution of genes to educational achievement, scientists are beginning to identify some of the thousands of specific DNA variations responsible. The latest — and still unpublished — research suggests that up to 15 percent of variance in achievement may be predictable through a “polygenic score” based on detailed DNA analysis, says Smith-Woolley. Science is still a long way, though, from producing a useful genetic test for guiding young people to the best educational options.

By Clive Cookson

OZY partners with the U.K.'s Financial Times to bring you premium analysis and features. © The Financial Times Limited 2020.

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