The prize for hard work: effort, educational attainment and the transmission of social inequality

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The meritocratic paradigm, predominant in our society, consists of the idea that success in life is determined by the combination of ability and effort. However, individuals only have agency over effort, a concept that has remained understudied in comparison to its importance for equality of opportunity. Bridging interdisciplinary literature from sociology, economics and psychology, this thesis seeks to expand the knowledge on the relevance of effort for educational processes and the transmission of social inequality. To expand the knowledge on effort, two measures of actual exerted effort are employed. The first reflects test effort, measured with the PISA test. The second is an experimental measure of cognitive effort stemming from real-effort tasks. These measures are used in different contexts (Australia, Spain and cross-country) to analyze the impact of effort on short and long-run educational outcomes. Furthermore, the thesis tests mechanisms based on sociological theories through which effort could contribute to the reproduction of social inequality. The results demonstrate that effort is indeed a crucial determinant of educational attainment. The magnitude of the impact is comparable to the effect of cognitive skills. Nevertheless, effort also contributes to the transmission of social advantage. The specific mechanisms and the implications for the conception of meritocracy and equality of opportunity are discussed.
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