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Second, assuming that they base their assessment of the probability of success in a certain educational option on their previous performance, students from a lower social background rate their probabilities of success in demanding educational options lower and thus have lower probabilities of choosing these options. The third mechanism takes resources into account. Because lower classes have a lower average level of resources, the costs of educational options affect the decisions of lower classes more strongly.

Downward mobility in educational attainment seems to reach similar levels: about one in every seven to eight men or women does not reach the parents’ educational level; regarding persons with tertiary educated parents, nearly every second person is downwardly mobile (see the above-mentioned percentages reported by Fuchs & Sixt, 2007a; Holtmann, 2010). One of the rare studies on intergenerational downward mobility examined the educational careers of persons in Switzerland with at least one parent who had a tertiary degree (Schmeiser, 2003).

The lower the class position of origin and the higher the destination, the more effort an individual has to invest in order to achieve it. Keller and Zavalloni (1964, p. 60) argue that ambition consequently has two components: a structural component based on the relative distance of a class from a goal, and a personality component that covers the ‘needs, capacities, and talents of individuals’. Thus, two individuals who are equally intelligent, competent, and studious but start from different classes will aim for different achievement goals because of the different distances they have to cover: ‘Since socially desirable success goals are not equally accessible to the different social classes, the motivation required to realize them cannot be treated as a constant’ (Keller & Zavalloni, 1964, p.

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