Jesper Fels Birkelund defends his PhD thesis at the Department of Sociology


Jesper Fels Birkelund


Lives on track: Family background, educational tracking, and inequality over the life cycle

Assessment Committee

  • Associate Professor Merlin Schaeffer, Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen (chair)
  • Professor Alice Sullivan, Institute of Education, University College London
  • Professor Heike Solga, WZB - Berlin Social Science Center


Head of PhD Programme, Professor Bente Halkier

Time and venue

Venue: Online via Zoom
Time: 25 February 2021, 1 PM

The PhD dissertation will be available via Academic Books as an e-publication. Also available for reading at the Department of Sociology, after the re-opening of the University Campus by contacting


An essential question for social scientists and policymakers alike is how the design of the education system influences the formation and reproduction of social inequalities. With a focus on the division of children into academic and vocational tracks in the Danish secondary school system, this dissertation examines consequences for intergenerational inequality brought about by unequal selection into tracks and unequal outcomes of track placement over the life cycle.

The dissertation makes three contributions to the literature. First, it expands the scope of potential outcomes by analyzing the consequences for both personality trait formation and life cycle earnings. Second, it estimates effects using econometric techniques developed to mitigate selection bias. Third, it develops counterfactual approaches to gauge the consequences of tracking for not only the individual student but also for social groups as a whole.

The empirical analyses show that family background strongly affects placement in academically selective tracks in Denmark, both in the ability-selective system in the 1960s and in the choice-based system in the 2010s. Still, the analyses also demonstrate that vocational education and training fosters conscientiousness and leads to earnings levels similar to those among academic degree holders. This finding suggests that academic and vocational tracks successfully cater students with different preferences and abilities, highlighting some potential benefits of a tracked rather than comprehensive upper secondary school system.