Do dreams come true? Aspirations and educational attainments of Ethiopian boys and girls

Most economic decisions that individuals take are forward-looking and are therefore shaped by the desire or ambition to achieve something. We need to aspire to get going even if simply aspiring will not guarantee that we can achieve what we desire. It follows that pessimistic beliefs which might arise from external constraints or barriers could become an independent source of disadvantage.

The capacity to aspire is not equally distributed in society: aspirations are socially determined, and thus the capacity to aspire is inherently unequal between rich and poor. Though we might not think this so, each one of us has a limited capacity to aspire. Our limits are set by a number of factors more or less `tangible’.

Think about the decision to enrol you daughter in secondary school. First of all, is there a decent school where you live? Is it affordable? Affordable access to information and to services is the first limitation our aspirations might run up against. Second, do you want to enrol your daughter in secondary school? Preference matters as well: there is no point aspiring to something that you would not even like to achieve. Third, do you think she will be able to complete her education (and will you be able to keep supporting her)? Do you think she would have better opportunities in the future because of her education? Expectations matters.

Aspirations, therefore, are a combination of an individual’s wants and preferences, information about the opportunities available, expectations about the feasibility of those wants and preferences, and the constraints and barriers acknowledged by the individual.

If you are reading this blog on your tablet and sitting comfy on your sofa, all these questions might seem easy to answer and your likely conclusion would be that it is worth investing in your daughter’s education. But it would be a different story if you had a tight budget, if you faced competing choices (her education or your son’s vaccinations), if you had limited information, if the closest school was two hours’ walking distance, if you could not be sure of being able to support her by the end of the school year, and if she would be able to find a better job once she completed school (whether because there are no jobs available, or because she is ‘expected’ to get married and have children). Then the conclusion would not be so obvious.

The extent of people's aspirations depends on their own beliefs about what they can achieve with effort, i.e. people won’t aspire to an outcome that is perceived as inaccessible. Thus, in the process of forming aspirations, individuals filter and dismiss some of the unattainable options on the basis of their expectations, so that  even when opportunities become available, we might get stuck in a vicious loop of not aspiring, not investing, not achieving because of our pessimist beliefs. Poverty may generate poverty. For many years, poverty-eradication strategies focused on building up people’s assets, in the form of human capital or physical and financial capital. This type of policies assumes that people become poor and remain poor solely because of constraints that are external to them. More recently, behavioural economists have proposed an alternative view which highlights the role of internal constraints in perpetuating poverty traps. But little is known about how aspirations shape decision-making.

Our recent paper partly addresses this gap. We focus on three related questions. First, the relationship between educational aspirations and boys’ and girls’ educational attainment, as an indicator of cumulative investments in education. Second, how parents and children form their aspirations and the transmission of aspirations from one generation to another. Third, the gender-based bias in aspirations and whether an initial pro-boys aspiration bias might partly explain the perpetuation of gender inequality, particularly in a context of extreme poverty.

We found that parents’ and children’s aspirations are high: most parents and children have university-related aspirations, but children and parents from wealthier families tend to have higher aspirations. Furthermore, the overall pro-boys gender gap in aspirations we see in our data widens among the poorest families.

We found that the educational aspirations of parents are responsive to their expectations about the age when their children will become independent and leave the household and get married. Moreover, aspirations are transmitted from one generation to the other. In fact, children’s aspirations tend to mirror parental aspirations. Finally, parents have higher aspirations for children who are performing better at school. Similarly, boys and girls adapt and change their aspirations over time, in the light of new experiences, choices and information, including their awareness of their own abilities and the perceived social risks and opportunities. More specifically, boys and girls tend to revise their own aspirations in opposite directions: boys tend to over-estimate their options for the future and end up revising their aspirations downwards. Girls, on the other hand, grow in their aspirations over time.

Do dreams come true? According to our finding, aspirations (both parental and children’s aspirations) strongly predict later educational attainment. The positive association found between aspirations and school attainment, however, do not entails causality. In fact, attainments and aspirations are mutually reinforcing, and it is difficult to state the direction of causality with certainty. Interestingly, we find that the relationship between aspirations and school achievement is stronger among boys than among girls, particularly after the age of 15, when the pressures to leave school become more intense as children’s ability to support household livelihoods increases. Boys, who typically spend more time doing paid work or working on the family farm or business, tend to drop out of school earlier than girls. Conversely, girls, who typically spend more time caring for others and on domestic tasks, can be more flexible in combining studying with responsibilities for in-household chores, and therefore they are more likely to stay in education after the age of 15.

Marta will presented her paper Aspirations and Educational Attainments of Ethiopian Boys and Girls  at the Young Lives Adolescence,Youth and Gender conference on 8 September 2016. 

UPDATE: There is now a journal article based on this work, please go to the Journal of African Economies website to view it.