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Journal Article

Birth order and college major in Sweden

Barclay, K. J., Hällsten, M., Myrskylä, M.

Social Forces (2017). Forthcoming.

Abstract

Previous research on birth order has consistently shown that later-borns have lower educational attainment than first-borns, however it is not known whether there are birth order patterns in college major. Given empirical evidence that parents disproportionately invest in first-born children, there are likely to be birth order patterns attributable to differences in both opportunities and preferences, related to ability, human capital specialization through parent-child transfers of knowledge, and personality. Birth order patterns in college major specialization may shed light on these explanatory mechanisms, and may also account for long-term birth order differences in educational and labour market outcomes. Using Swedish population register data and sibling fixed effects we find large birth order differences in university applications. First-borns are more likely to apply to, and graduate from, medicine and engineering programs at university, while later-borns are more likely to study journalism and business programs, and to attend art school. We also find that these birth order patterns are stronger in high SES families, and that differences in college major explain approximately half of the within-family birth order differences in long-term earnings. These results indicate that early life experiences and parental investment shapes sibling differences in ability, preferences, and ambitions even within the shared environment of the family.

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