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Social class inequality in higher education: The role of psychological barriers in higher education choices

Marlon Nieuwenhuis

Marlon will present work from her PhD which she obtained at Cardiff University, UK.

Socio-economic status (SES) is an important predictor of educational outcomes. Compared to their socio-economically advantaged counterparts, disadvantaged students are more likely to attain a lower level of education and are less likely to attend selective universities (OECD, 2010, 2013). Not only are these educational differences unfair; they also represent a huge waste of human talent and opportunity. Part of the SES gap in access to high status universities can be explained by factors unrelated to academic achievement. In her PhD, Marlon examined the role of perceived psychological barriers in higher education choices. In two studies conducted in secondary schools we assessed how well SES, grades, identity compatibility and anticipated fit predicted the higher education choices of students aged 16-18. The results showed that school students who expected to fit well into a (highly) selective university were more likely to apply for higher ranking universities in general, whereas the opposite was the case for pupils who expected to fit well into a less-selective university. Together, the results of these studies show that perceptions of anticipated fit with different types of university are associated with higher education choices independently of students’ academic ability. This helps to explain why highly able students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to settle for less prestigious universities.