Can families in low-income contexts “pull themselves up by their bootstraps?” In rural Gambia, caregivers with high aspirations for their children's future education and career, measured before the child starts school, invest substantially more in their children’s education. Despite this, essentially none of these children are literate or numerate three years later. In contrast, a bundled supply-side intervention administered in these same areas generates large literacy and numeracy gains. Conditional on receipt of this intervention, children of high-aspirations caregivers are 25 percent more likely to achieve literacy and numeracy than those of low-aspirations caregivers. Our results show that even in very low-income contexts, greater caregiver aspirations for children can map onto substantially different child learning outcomes, but only in the presence of adequate complementary inputs.
Aspirations shape important future-oriented behaviors, including educational investment. Higher family aspirations for children predict better educational outcomes in multiple developing countries. Unfortunately, aspirations sometimes outstrip people's ability to pursue them. We study the relationship between family aspirations for children and later child educational outcomes in an extremely poor context. We observe caregivers' educational and career aspirations for thousands of rural Gambian children about to begin schooling. While higher aspirations predict subsequent educational investment and, three years later, better child performance on reading/math tests, these gains are small in terms of skills learned, and high-aspirations children remain far from achieving literacy/numeracy. In contrast, a bundled supply-side intervention generated large literacy/numeracy gains in these areas. Since unobserved correlates of aspirations and educational outcomes likely bias our estimates upwards, the true aspirations-learning relationship may be even smaller. We conclude higher aspirations alone are insufficient to achieve literacy/numeracy in this, and perhaps similar contexts.