When families change the state or municipality they live in, it is easy to assume they do so for better opportunities and that having more money will help the whole family succeed. But research in this area shows that many children who moved schools underperform compared to their classmates. Multiple moves or family disadvantage (e.g. lower levels of parental education or income, a less stable family or employment situation) can increase the likelihood of children doing worse in school, becoming parents earlier or earning less as adults than peers who did not move. Wealthy parents who move for high-paying jobs might be able to compensate for some of the problems their children experience, but current research shows that this type of migration – especially over longer distances – is definitely not always good for children.
In a new paper, Patricia McMullin, Elina Kilpi-Jakonen and Jani Erola (University of Turku) and Aleksi Karhula (University of Helsinki and University of Turku) study the relationship between children moving and dropping out of school (i.e. not receiving a secondary-level degree) in both Finland and Germany. Their research focuses on the following questions: When children drop out of school after moving, are there other disruptions in their lives – such as parents separating or becoming unemployed – that led to a long-distance move? Do these types of disruptive events add up to make school drop-out more likely (known as cumulative disadvantage) for those who moved? And if parents do move for economic reasons, can they use these gains to limit the risk of their children dropping out of school?
The results for Finland and Germany are similar, but there are important differences. In Finland, long-distance moves are linked to a higher risk that children will drop out of school. This can be, in part, explained by other disruptive events such as parental separation or unemployment before moving. In Germany, however, the link between long-distance moves and school dropout remains strong even when other disruptive events are considered. In both countries, there was no evidence of cumulative disadvantage. In fact, moving was often a bigger risk for children whose parents remained together compared to children whose parents have separated (given that those whose parents are separated tended to fair worse to begin with). In general, any financial gains from moving do not reduce the risk of school dropout.
Despite long-distance moves often being considered an advantage – or even a necessity – for labour market opportunities, this research suggests such moves can be harmful to children’s educational attainment, and there are few things that can compensate for this.