Being top of the class can affect your education and income later in life
In addition to the positive effects of having high grades in itself, being top of the class increases the probability that a student finishes a longer education or gets a higher income later in life. For students at the lower end of the grade distribution, being a bit more highly ranked compared to other students in the school increases the probability of finishing upper secondary school. These are the results of a new dissertation in economics from the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) at Stockholm University.
Two students with similar grades and similar background who attend similar schools, can have different probability of completing a long education, getting a higher income later in life or even completing upper secondary school, only depending how they are ranked internally their school. The effect is stronger at the tails of the grade distribution: Students with very high or very low grades are positively affected by having a slightly higher rank within the school, but the effect does not seem to be present among students with average grades. These are the results of a new dissertation in economics from Stockholm University.
“If a student with very high grades gets a slightly higher rank within a school, it increases the probability of choosing a more challenging track for their education, completing more years of education and getting a higher average income later in life. For the students with very low ability the ordinal rank in class can affect the probability of finishing upper secondary school”, said Iman Dadgar, newly appointed PhD in economics and researcher at the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University.
Students from low-income families affected the most
In the study, Iman Dadgar compared students with different school level grade rank positions, but the same rank position nation-wide, and examined how they performed later in life, to see if the school level rank had a connection to the students’ “success”. He used register data of all Swedish students who finished 9th grade between 1990 and 1997. To measure their “success” later in life he looked at the length and level of their education and average income, among other things.
“I found that students from low-income families, and with immigrant background, are more strongly affected by their grade rank in school. There is also a difference for boys and girls. Girls tend to gain more than boys from an increase in the grade rank, especially if they are near the top of the class. Girls also seem to compare themselves to the other girls in class, rather than to the entire class”, said Iman Dadgar.
The findings from this study are contrasting earlier studies from the US which have shown an effect of the ordinal rank for students at all levels, regardless of their ability or grades.
“A possible explanation for the different results from our Swedish data is that the school system in Sweden is more equal, at least during study period. Students from different background more often attend the same schools, and the income and wealth distribution is not so wide” said Iman Dadgar.
"Should work to reduce this negative effect"
The results of this study stresses the importance of not only comparing different schools and the average results of school classes, Iman Dadgar emphasizes.
“Today we mainly focus on the quality of the entire school, but it is also important to consider the students’ position in the class, which plays an essential role in their long-term outcome, said Iman Dadgar.
He also wants to highlight the negative effect of the ordinal rank for student with lower ability.
“I think that the educators should work to reduce this negative effect, since it has long-lasting consequences for the students, said Iman Dadgar.
How the study was carried out
In the study, Iman Dadgar has used register data with the grades of all Swedish students who finished 9th grade during the years 1990 – 1997, and he has followed them until the age of 33.
The students were ranked within their school and nation-wide. Both rank variables are based on the final grades of the compulsory school, after the ninth year of school in Sweden.
To measure the outcome, the level of “success” for these students later in life, he used four different indicators. The years of education, which fields of study they choose, probability of finishing upper secondary school, and their average income in the age of 30-33.
Read more about the research
Dadgar, I. (2022). Essays on the economics of education and health (PhD dissertation, Department of Economics, Stockholm University).
Researcher, PhD in economics
Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI)
Phone: 08-16 41 59
Last updated: June 21, 2022