Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Lower Socioeconomic Status Students Don't Have Lower Aspirations But Are Rightly Wary of University

The University of Newcastle's course for teachers "Aspirations: Supporting Students’ Futures" references Gore, Holmes, Smith, et al (2015). While 2015 now seems a long time ago, the issues it investigates are very current. As we (hopefully) emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, it is a good time for educational institutions to rethink who their potential students are, and what they want. 

The researchers set out to find if low low socioeconomic status (SES) students don't consider university, and contact by universities in schools, would change their minds. They asked about 3,000 NSW school students, in Years 4 to 10, split evenly between city and regions, at mostly government schools. As the authors point out, conventional wisdom is that Year 10 is too late to change a student's views on studying at university (as well as being too late for them to select suitable courses to get into university). 

The researchers found that earlier year students were more certain about a future career than later year ones. They therefore suggest discussion of careers in primary school, with the aim of maintaining this interest in later years.

The researchers also found that the assumed preference of higher SES students for more prestigious occupations (requiring university qualifications) was relatively small. Most students aspired to skilled, para and professional jobs (vet, teacher, sportsperson). The exceptions were two occupations: mechanic (aspired by low SES, and doctor (high). It was noted that low-SES students were aiming for financial security, with high were more often selecting a career out of interest. 

A key finding was that how the students had done in their study was more important than SES in determining their view of a future career. Those who did well aspired to higher status jobs. However, the researchers could only account for a small minority of the variation in career choice (13%). While they speculated what might account for the rest, they do not know.

As someone from a low SES background I found this of interest. It was not until after completing a graduate certificate and masters of education, that it occurred to me I was a low SES background, first in generation to university student. As a child I had aspirations of being an engineer, which was likely influenced by a strong mechanical bent of all males in the family (my nephew now designs robots for assembling cars). I ended up on the academic staff of an Engineering and Computer Science College of a university. 

Obviously there is self interest in universities wanting to attract low SES students, as the pool of high SES ones dries up. However, is this in the interests of the students, and the public interest? I find talk of striving for excellence by by academic colleagues troubling. As a student myself, as recently as 2016, I was not striving for excellence, I was aiming for the minimum required to complete my studies (or just a bit above the minimum , to be on the safe side). Even though I am now financially secure, and it doesn't really matter if I pass or fail, I can't break the habits of a lifetime, aiming to complete as quickly, cheaply and safely as possible.

Rather than trying to lure low SES students into university courses which they, for very rational economic reasons, may be avoiding, I suggest providing options which make sense to them. As an example, students can be offered a path from VET, where they can get a qualification for a secure well paying career, through further study at university to a higher paying career. That will make more sense to someone needing to aim for financial security, than asking them to aim for excellence, but likely end up with no qualification after several years of university study, and a large student debt. 


Gore, J., Holmes, K., Smith, M. et al. Socioeconomic status and the career aspirations of Australian school students: Testing enduring assumptions. Aust. Educ. Res. 42, 155–177 (2015).

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