Notwithstanding the low level of tuition fees and absence of other access barriers, Italy is characterised by low educational achievement at university level. Possible reasons for this phenomenon are examined and a formal model is proposed predicting that families will invest more in their children the higher a child’s unobservable “ability”. Since family income provides an incentive for better student performance, richer parents internalise this effect by investing more resources in the education of their children. This study’s empirical analysis does not contradict this theoretical model. Using the Bank of Italy’s representative sample of the Italian population (1995), we observe that family income does not prevent enrolment at the university, whereas unobservable “ability” is more relevant, especially as it shapes the secondary education choices. Using administrative data on students enrolled in some faculties of the State University of Milan in 1995‐1996, we show that students’ performance is positively correlated with unobservable “ability” and with family income. We take this last evidence as supporting the idea of family networking – students from richer families tend to go quicker because they have better prospects when they leave university.
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