Despite educational expansion and decreasing social inequalities in access to upper secondary education, increasing social inequalities can be found in the transition from upper secondary to tertiary education in Germany. Drawing on Boudon’s distinction between primary and secondary effects of social origin, we describe two potential sources which can be considered responsible for the observed pattern: first, an increase in performance differentials between upper secondary graduates from different social backgrounds, and second, a heterogenization of educational motivations and post-secondary plans among upper secondary graduates. We test these hypotheses with a series of datasets of upper secondary graduation cohorts from 1976 to 2002, provided by the German Higher Education Information System and apply a decomposition method in order to test the development of the contribution of various measures of primary and secondary effects. We find that primary effects play only a negligible role for the explanation of increasing social inequalities over time, whereas the growing class-specific differences in the transition to tertiary education are primarily due to increasing secondary effects.

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