Can Science Explain How Long You Stay in Education?

Earlier this week, a study published in Nature, the International Weekly Journal of Science, uncovered a collection of genes that influence how long people spend in education.

In the study, conducted by more than 250 scientists, 74 genetic variants were found which are believed to shape the number of years people spend at school and in university. Most of the genetic variants were found in brain development, especially in the womb.

This means genetics could have a role to play in why some students abandon their courses at Makerere whereas others can’t wait to sit their A’Level finals and proceed to drop out of school.

“Educational attainment is strongly influenced by social and other environmental factors, but genetic factors are estimated to account for at least 20% of the variation across individuals,” as stated in the study’s abstract.

The genes spotted in the latest study appear to work through their impact on a person’s cognitive abilities and aspects of personality, such as intellectual curiosity and persistence, but the importance of each specific trait is not yet confirmed.

Daniel Benjamin, who is a study author at the University of Southern California, said the findings offer fresh insights into the biology of human brains, and also cast light on mental health conditions. There was a great intersection between genetic variants for time spent in education and Alzheimer’s, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, according to the study.

As much as the work broadens the knowledge pool of researches with regards to the role of DNA in reaching educational milestones, the 74 genetic factors explain only a small portion of the difference in time people spend in education. Genetics accounts for at least 20% of the variation seen across the population, but family background, upbringing, and other social and environmental factors explain the rest.

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The international team scoured the genomes of nearly 300,000 Europeans in 15 countries for genetic variants associated with time spent in education. Having found 74, the scientists verified them in 111,000 people who have DNA held by the UK Biobank. When the researchers pooled the results from both groups, they had 162 genetic variants linked to years in education.

The scientists went on to produce what they call a “polygenic score” based on all nine million sections of DNA they analysed, and found it explained 3% of the difference in time people spent at schools and universities, and 6% when they included the UK Biobank data.

With larger studies, the polygenic scores will improve in accuracy and could eventually be used to improve teaching.

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