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Why Are Top Universities in the UK and the US ‘Not Being Chosen by Low Income Students’?

By Chloe Lane

Updated February 17, 2020 Updated February 17, 2020

The Guardian recently revealed that UK students from low income backgrounds who have good A level results are less likely to choose to study at high ranking universities than more privileged students with the same A level results. 

These findings are based on a report from the Centre for Economic Performance of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), which used administrative data from schools, universities and tax authorities, on a sample size of 140,000 students, to determine whether a student was ‘well matched’ to their university and their course. 

There were two measures used to determine whether a student was ‘well matched’ to their university course: the student academic attainment and graduate earnings. 

A report from the Nuffield foundation indicates that those who “undermatch” in their university are more likely to drop out of university, more likely to earn less once they graduate and more likely to get a lower class degree.

What did LSE’s study find?

Greater course mismatch in the US than the UK  

The LSE report found that although there are a “significant proportion” of students mismatched to their course, the results imply that this is more so in the US than the UK.

They explain that this may be due to the UK’s more generous financial funding scheme, and the fact that there is almost no price variation between courses, meaning that students are less likely to opt for a price-quality trade off. 

Poorer students are more likely to undermatch on the course and the university

The study also found that students from lower social-economic groups are significantly more likely to undermatch on both the student academic attainment and graduate wages.

“Students from lower socio-economic groups systematically undermatch for both measures across the distribution of attainment, with particularly stark socio-economic gaps for the most undermatched”

The study argues that if students from low income backgrounds are enrolling in courses and universities with lower returns, they are likely to earn a lower wage in the future and will likely therefore “undermine the potential for higher education to have a positive impact on social mobility”. 

In other words, if students are high academic achievers, they are more likely to excel in their degree and therefore in their future employment prospects if they are around other like-minded high academic achievers.

So, why is this happening?

Insufficient information given at secondary schools

Primarily, it’s the lack of information and support given at some secondary schools which are getting the blame for this issue.

The Atlantic claimed, “high achievers throughout the socioeconomic spectrum receive insufficient, impersonal guidance about colleges from their public high schools.” The article goes on to say that, given this, students often turn to their families for advice -- advice which of course differs by social class, especially if this student is the first in their family to go to university. 

“Factors associated with secondary school such as peers, parental sorting, and information provided by the school are the likely key drivers for improving student-to-course match” said a report from the Centre for Economic Performance.

Perception of “elitism” of top ranked universities putting off applications

For many, top universities, particularly those in the Russell Group or Ivy League, come with a certain aura of elitism surrounding them, which may put some students (particularly those from lower income backgrounds) off applying.

Close proximity to home or current living situation

The proximity to the family home is a factor that may greatly influence which university students decide to attend.

Dennis Relojo-Howell, an incoming PhD student at the University of Edinburgh says, “I grew up in a slum in the Philippines and I'm the first in the family to go to university. After finishing my first master's degree in the Philippines, a British family generously sponsored me to do a second master's degree at the University of Hertfordshire in 2013. It was the location which served as the deciding factor as I was living in Hertfordshire at the time.     

“Right now, I’m an incoming PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. The main reason I applied to Edinburgh is because I found the perfect supervisor for my research project, plus the flexibility of being able to pursue my degree online, which is crucial because I am working full-time. I don't see anything that would put me off from applying to any university. For me, it's simply a matter of finding a university that fits my circumstances.”

What can be done to boost enrolment of students from low income backgrounds?

The UK’s Office for Students (OfS) have said that “the access gap at England’s most selective universities will almost halve in the next five years if universities meet the ambitious new commitments they have made on equal opportunities”.

They say that “In late 2018, the Office for Students (OfS) set new national targets to achieve equality of opportunity in higher education” in the UK, by “tackling gaps in entry rates, dropout rates and degree outcomes between different groups of students.”

OfS have now set out commitments for higher education providers to “ensuring that students from all backgrounds can get into university and succeed while there and after they leave.”

Backlash from private schools

Leading private schools say that this change may lead to discrimination in young people “on the basis of the class they were born into”.

The executive director of the Headmaster’s and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), Mike Buchanan, said that the UK’s plan to introduce contextual admissions, which would allow universities to consider an applicant’s educational and socio-economic status before offering them a place at the university, are fine as long “if used on a sophisticated, individual basis” and are not solely about the type of school.

This article was originally published in February 2020 .

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Written by

As Content Editor for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com, Chloe creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. Chloe has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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