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When Pulling Yourself Up by the Bootstraps Isn’t Everything: Factors that Influence Young Generations’ Education

As a student amid many classes, bogged down by assignments and under pressure to learn a mountain of material, it may seem that the student alone is responsible for their own academic success. However, family economics research has shown that this is not completely true. While personal responsibility is undoubtedly needed for academic success, a student’s educational journey is impacted by a range of variables from government policies to parenting style. In Dr. Xiaohui (Sophie) Li’s article, What Impacts Young Generations’ School/College Education Through the Lens of Family Economics? A Review on JFEI Publications in the Past Ten Years, Li splits up her discussion of the factors that impact young generations’ education into three categories: the macro-, meso-, and micro-levels of influence.[1] These levels are a way to look at the influences in a person’s life from a broad, big-picture lens (considering influences such as the government or society) to a close, direct lens (such as the family). In doing so, Li provides insight into challenges a student might encounter while obtaining an education.

Macro-Level: Government Policies

woman with a book

Political instability, government policies, and funded programs are all macro-level (large-scale) influences that can affect a student. Political instability may not be a prominent concern at this time in the U.S., but government policy and funded programs are very relevant to the life of a student. Even policies that may appear unrelated to education can change the course of that student’s academic experience.

To illustrate this point, let’s consider China’s one-child policy; it doesn’t immediately seem related to education. However, when researcher Ming-Hsuan Lee (2012) looked at the connection between the one-child policy and educational opportunities for those children affected by the policy, they found that the policy actually increased educational opportunities for daughters.[2] This is because no other child shared the family resources, so parents were able to invest in their daughter’s education as much as they would have a son’s, significantly changing the futures of those daughters.

Top-down view of a city

Policies can have unexpected effects, then. For students in the U.S., policies that may affect their education include housing and immigration policies. Although seemingly unrelated, housing has a huge impact on education. Zoning restrictions keep low-income housing from being built in wealthier areas. Because school funding is often tied to local property taxes, differences in school quality, such as gaps in test-scores between schools, are perpetuated.[3] Additionally, immigration policies, such as deportation, can alter the day-to-day school experience for students. The children of immigrants may suddenly stop attending class, adding
stress to the classroom and leaving their peers confused.[4]

Meso-Level: Community

As much as we might like to blame the government, though, there are other factors in the lives of students that affect their education. Beyond government policies, the community that surrounds a student plays a significant role in that student’s academic success. We look to China for another example.

money and loan sign

Researchers Wang and Moll (2010) found that in poor rural areas of China, parents paid for their children’s education through private savings, in part because they did not have access to financial services such as a reliable bank.[5] Because of this, children were limited in how much education they could obtain because higher education was more expensive and therefore couldn’t be self-supported. This situation is not so different from the ones that certain communities face here in the U.S. Although a rural community might seem completely different from an inner-city community, the opportunities for each can be remarkably similar. In many cities in the U.S., inner-city communities have easy access to quick cash, but no way of actually building credit through a bank, due to banks moving out of these communities in the 1980s.[6] With no credit, getting a loan large enough to cover education is nigh unto impossible.[7] Hence, it’s not just about where you live—rural China or inner-city America—but also the services available to your community that can affect your educational attainment.

Micro-Level: Family

Of course, we can’t forget the direct influence of someone’s familial environment on their education. Parents play a vital role in their child’s success in school.

Simply put, when parents are actively involved in their children's education, their children succeed more in school. However, parental involvement is often altered according to the parents’ personal education level, as well as how much they work.[8] Parents that work more and/or have a lower education level are found to be less involved with their child’s education. Even from a young age, this can set a child up for less success down the road by not providing the information and preparation necessary for that child to one day go on to college.

Further, family structure and living arrangements, as well as parenting style and parents’ socioeconomic status, have all been found to influence a student’s education.[9] Clearly, there is so much that goes into how well a student does in school. Maybe now you don’t feel so bad about that C- you got on your last exam, right?

Well, don’t get too comfortable. These factors don’t mean you’re off the hook. We have yet to discuss the level of self-influence.

Micro-Level: Yourself

Amidst all these factors, researcher Steinmayr et al. (2019) said that intrinsic motivation, or internal self-motivation, is still the key to academic success.[10] Students benefit during their educational experience from being financially self-disciplined, such as collecting assets and savings. In fact, low-to-moderate income students with their own college savings were found to be three times more likely to be in college than those without.[11]

But who is teaching these students how to obtain assets, or how to save money? Where is the money coming from for these students to save up? Are they being supported by parents, schools, or policies to help them learn these essential skills? Obviously, it has to be the choice of the student to use these skills once they are taught, which is why self-motivation is so critical. But let’s not forget the many factors within and without their control. Maybe then we can help each other pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, possibly reinforce those straps a little too, and all find the educational success we are looking for.


So, how do we help ourselves and one another? Here are two suggestions to get you started.

1) Know your resources. First, knowing what resources can help you succeed personally is important. Learning how to acquire assets and save money to prepare for the costs of higher education will benefit you in your educational efforts. (You can find resources to get started here!)

2) Be aware of what is going on around you. Second, being aware of the challenges others face in their education enables you to support others in their educational pursuits when needed. Being aware also enables you to back policies that further these same students’ opportunities as well.


[1] Li, X.S. (2021). What impacts young generations’ school/college education through the lens of family economics? A review on JFEI publications in the past ten years. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 42(1), p. 118–123.

[2] Lee, M.H. (2012). The one-child policy and gender equality in education in China: Evidence from household data. Journal of Family and Economics Issues, 33, p. 41–52.

[3] Fender, J., & Le, T. (2017, May 3). How Housing Policies Serve as Education Policies – Yale Education Studies Student Research.

[4] Ee, J., & Gándara, P. (2020). The Impact of Immigration Enforcement on the Nation’s Schools. American Educational Research Journal, 57(2), 840–871.

[5] Wang, H.S., Moll, H. (2010). Education financing of rural households in China. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 31, p. 353–360.

[6] Graves, S.M. (2003). Landscapes of predation, landscapes of neglect: A location analysis of payday lenders and banks, The Professional Geographer, 55(3), p. 303-317.

[7] Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. "Fall 2014," Inside the Vault (Fall 2014)., accessed on September 22, 2023.

[8] Stacer, M.J. & Perrucci, R. (2013). Parental involvement with children at school, home, and community. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 34, p. 340–354.

[9] Li, X.S. (2021). What impacts young generations’ school/college education through the lens of family economics? A review on JFEI publications in the past ten years. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 42(1), p. 118–123.

[10] Steinmayr, R., Weidinger, A. F., Schwinger, M., & Spinath, B. (2019). The importance of students’ motivation for their academic achievement—Replicating and extending previous findings. Frontiers in Psychology.

[11] Elliott, W., Constance-Huggins, M. & Song, Ha. (2013). Improving college progress among low- to moderate-income (LMI) young adults: The role of assets. Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 34, p. 382–399.