Family and social networks are widely believed to inﬂuence important life decisions but identifying their causal effects is notoriously difficult. Using admissions thresholds that directly affect older but not younger siblings’ college options, we present evidence from the United States, Chile, Sweden and Croatia that older siblings’ college and major choices can signiﬁcantly inﬂuence their younger siblings’ college and major choices. On the extensive margin, an older sibling’s enrollment in a better college increases a younger sibling’s probability of enrolling in college at all, especially for families with low predicted probabilities of enrollment. On the intensive margin, an older sibling’s choice of college or major increases the probability that a younger sibling applies to and enrolls in that same college or major. Spillovers in major choice are stronger when older siblings enroll and succeed in more selective and higher-earning majors. The observed spillovers are not well-explained by price, income, proximity or legacy effects, but are most consistent with older siblings transmitting otherwise unavailable information about the college experience and its potential returns. The importance of such personally salient information may partly explain persistent differences in college-going rates by geography, income, and other determinants of social networks.
College and Major Choice
While it is a widely held belief that family and social networks can inﬂuence important life decisions, identifying causal effects is notoriously difficult. This paper presents causal evidence from three countries at different stages of economic development that the educational trajectories of older siblings can signiﬁcantly inﬂuence the college and major choice of younger siblings. We exploit institutional features of centralized college assignment systems in Chile, Croatia, and Sweden to generate quasi-random variation in the educational paths taken by older siblings. Using a regression discontinuity design, we show that younger siblings in each country are signiﬁcantly more likely to apply and enroll in the same college and major that their older sibling was assigned to. These results persist for siblings far apart in age who are unlikely to attend higher education at the same time. We propose three broad classes of mechanisms that can explain why the trajectory of an older sibling can causally affect the college and major choice of a younger sibling. We ﬁnd that spillovers are stronger when older siblings enroll and are successful in majors that on average have higher scoring peers, lower dropout rates and higher earnings from graduates. The evidence presented shows that the decisions, and even random luck, of your close family members and peer network, can have signiﬁcant effects on important life decisions such as the choice of specialization in higher education. The results also suggest that college access programs such as aﬃrmative action, may have important spillover effects through family and social networks.