First-in-family students ‘more likely to drop out’ of university

They are also less likely than students with graduate parents to go to an ‘elite’ institution 

August 12, 2020
Departures
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Students who are the first in their family to attend university are more likely to drop out than those with graduate parents and are less likely to attend an elite institution, according to new analysis. 

The study, by researchers at the UCL Centre for Longitudinal Studies, found that students with parents who did not attend university were 4 percentage points more likely to drop out than their peers whose parents attended university, even after prior educational attainment and socioeconomic status were taken into account.

Overall, more than two-thirds of all university students complete their degrees.

The researchers analysed data from more than 7,700 participants in the Next Steps longitudinal cohort study, which has been following the lives of a group of people in England, born in 1989-90, since secondary school.

Their paper, which analysed data taken from the latest survey of the cohort in 2015-16, showed that 27 per cent of the participants had attended university by the age of 25. Two-thirds of these participants were first-in-family students, demonstrating how much higher education has expanded over time, the researchers write.

The proportion of students in “non-elite universities” – identified as non-Russell Group institutions – who were first in family was above 70 per cent, whereas in the Russell Group their proportion dropped to 50 per cent and at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge was only 32 per cent.

The authors calculated that first-in-family students were 3 percentage points less likely to attend Russell Group universities, when prior academic attainment was taken into account.

While widening-participation campaigns often focus on increasing diversity in admissions, “increasing diversity in degree completion is ultimately the more important policy goal”, the study authors write.

The study also identified what type of subjects first-in-family students were taking. According to the findings, they were 5 percentage points more likely to study law, economics and management subjects compared to those whose parents have a degree and 5 percentage points less likely to take other social science and arts and humanities subjects.

The authors say that students who have graduate parents were shown to be more likely to take subjects that are less vocational – for example, history – while those who are first in family are more likely to take subjects that have a direct route to the labour market, such as law.

They add that first-in-family students are also slightly more likely to choose “high-earning” subjects.

One of the study’s authors, Morag Henderson, an associate professor of sociology at UCL, said she hoped that the government’s recent signals that it planned to move away from the target of getting 50 per cent of young adults into higher education “mean not only more commitment to further education, but also more commitment to widening participation in higher education”.

“As the evidence from our study suggests, first-generation university students are already at a disadvantage and could be missing out on the help they need to unlock their potential in the higher education system. We hope that the departure from the target of 50 per cent of young people going to university does not have the undesirable side effect that only the most advantaged students access high-status courses at high-status universities,” she said.

Co-author Nikki Shure, a lecturer in economics at the UCL Institute of Education, added that all universities should “think about what more they can do to offer guidance and advice to first-in-the-family students, both at the application stage and once they have enrolled, so they have the best chance of fulfilling their potential”.

anna.mckie@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (2)

Just not surprised.
When your parents haven't prepared you with anecdotes about the way other students behave from their own experiences, especially when your from the wrong socio-economical background, it's hardly surprising. In my time at University those of us not from a public school background had an awful time at the hands of some of those that were, now the affluent middle class students pick on the working class students in a similar way, dropping out to save one's sanity shows just how ineffectual some student support services are.

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