Whether a student graduates high school or achieves a college degree could depend partly on genetic factors beyond their control, according to a national study of thousands of Americans.
In the report, which appears in the July issue of Developmental Psychology, researchers identify three genes -- DAT1, DRD2, and DRD4 -- that are associated with attention regulation, motivation, violence, cognitive skills and intelligence.
"Being able to show that specific genes are related in any way to academic achievement is a big step forward in understanding the developmental pathways among young people," the study's lead author Kevin Beaver said, according to Science Daily. Beaver is a professor at the College of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida State University.
Although previous research has investigated links between genes and intelligence, no candidate genes for such a link had yet been identified, according to the study.
Beaver and colleagues examined data from a longitudinal, nationally representative sample of Americans enrolled in middle or high school in 1994 and 1995.
The source of the data is the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, or Add Health. The Add Health study continued until 2008, and the participants provided DNA samples, gave interviews and completed questionnaires in an aim to "assess the health status of adolescents and explore the causes of their health-related behaviors."
The genes linked to educational attainment are dopamine transporter and receptor genes -- although everyone has them in some form, molecular differences in the genes, called alleles, differ from person to person. Certain alleles are associated with higher levels of educational achievement.
The effect of the genes is probabilistic rather than all-or-nothing. The presence of certain alleles raises the likelihood of increased educational attainment but does not insure it.
“No one gene is going to say, ‘Sally will graduate from high school’ or ‘Johnny will earn a college degree,’” Beaver said in a statement.
The possibility that educational outcomes "are under considerable genetic influence," the report concludes, "has evolved from taboo to common acceptance."