Can you raise young people’s aspirations to go to university?

Author: Andrew McCulloch

Earlier this month the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in the UK published the National Strategy for Access and Student Success in Higher Education. But how important is it to raise young people's aspirations to go to university and will this result in more of them getting there? Using data from a longitudinal study of school children in England, I looked to see if different attitudes among young people would affect their attendance at university.

Over the last 10 years governments have tried to increase the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who go to university. The number of young people from less well-off families does seem to have risen slightly over the last 10 years. Most researchers agree that the long-term rise in the number of young people going to university has, however, mainly benefited children from middle-class families. The introduction of annual tuition fees of up to £9,000 raised the obvious concern that young people from less well-off families might be put-off going to university by the amount of debt they would incur.

In response, the government established the Office for Fair Access (OFFA) and any university which sets an annual tuition fee of above £6,000 is required to agree an access agreement with OFFA setting out the steps they will take to ensure that children from poor families can still go to university. The strategies that universities have used to try to widen participation vary significantly and there is no real consensus on the best way to increase the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university. Many institutions are increasingly focusing, however, on outreach activities such as summer schools, lectures, mentoring etc. which aim to raise young people’s aspirations to go to university.

It is not clear, however, that outreach activities can increase the number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who go to university. Indeed, most quantitative work using data from the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE) has tended to emphasise that young people's aspirations to go university are quite stable (Anders and Micklewright 2013). The LSYPE conducted annual interviews with around 16,000 children in England from 2004 when they were in year 9 up until 2010 when they had all left school. At the first four interviews all respondents were asked whether it was very likely, fairly likely, fairly unlikely or not at all likely that they would apply to go to university. The main finding from previous work has been that young people who didn't state at age 13/14 that they thought they would apply to university were very unlikely to have gone to university after leaving school.

However, it is quite difficult to look at patterns of change over time when you have an outcome in one of four categories measured at four time points. There are some statistical techniques which can help, one of which is latent class analysis. In the LSYPE using latent class analysis allows us to gauge how many groups, each having a distinct pattern of aspirations, there are in our data and the proportion of young people in each group. Because the LSYPE is a longitudinal study this will tell us about the trajectories that young people's aspirations follow over the period they are making up their mind about whether to go to university. The results of the work suggest that young people's aspirations to go to university can be grouped into six age trajectories and the graph below shows how the predicted probability of giving each response varies over the different trajectories.

Four of the trajectories (group I, III, IV and VI) are characterised by aspirations that are relatively stable over time. In the remaining two trajectories, young people's aspirations move from being fairly likely to very likely to go to university (group II) and from being fairly likely to not at all likely to go to university (group V). There are differences in aspirations and family background between respondents whose aspirations follow different trajectories so it is not that aspirations are the only thing that counts for whether young people apply to go to university. However, the results are more encouraging than previous studies, for the idea that in some young people aspirations to go university matter for whether they get there or not.

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