Parents ‘overly optimistic’ about children’s university prospects

Disadvantaged families have upbeat expectations for their offspring but underestimate the barriers, study suggests

May 15, 2022
Portrait of smiling little girl putting coin in pink piggy bank, sitting on dad's lap on the couch at home
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While children from disadvantaged households are thought to be deterred from attending university by their families’ low aspirations, research instead suggests that parents are upbeat about their offspring’s higher education prospects – but underestimate the obstacles.

An Australian study has found that for every parent who wrongly expects a son or daughter to steer clear of university, five parents wrongly expect their children to enrol. The findings, published in the British Educational Research Journal, reflect a rosy mindset where 93 per cent of parents assess their school-aged children’s academic achievement as average or better.

Similarly, 63 per cent of parents expect their kids to be among the 44 per cent of young adults who go to university. “The expectations are positively skewed,” said lead author Mike Dockery, a Curtin University specialist in applied labour economics.

“That goes against the narrative that it’s the aspirations that people don’t have that are holding them back. In fact, they think their children are going to go to university [without] really realising how serious the barriers are.”

Professor Dockery said the findings had been based on a “smallish sample” from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia survey, which tracks more than 17,000 Australians each year. The research focused on a subset of several hundred respondents with children aged between 13 and 15 in the survey’s 2016 wave.

It found that the majority of parents had reasonably realistic expectations, with about three-quarters of the children tipped as future university students enrolling by the age of 20. Their attendance largely correlated with factors known to affect university participation, such as gender, household income and parental education.

The study also found that parents’ judgements of their children’s university potential were “highly stable”, having changed little since an earlier survey wave in 2012. “It appears that assessments for younger children are also likely to be reasonably strong predictors of actual outcomes, although perhaps not as strong as many would have expected,” the paper says.

Sole parents proved an exception to the pattern of staunch optimism, with single mothers two-thirds more likely than those in couples to predict that their offspring would not make it to university. “This suggests that the…additional challenges in navigating the secondary education system further disadvantage children from sole-parent families,” the paper says.

Unlike partnered women, single mothers’ hopes of having university-educated children also declined over time. Professor Dockery said single parents with very young offspring, who might initially expect their situations to improve, could become less optimistic by the time their children reached the latter years of high school. “If you’re a sole parent, you’re probably doing it pretty tough.”

The findings suggested that universities should prioritise single-parent families in their outreach efforts. But co-author Ian Li, a senior lecturer in health and labour economics at the University of Western Australia, said such an approach posed operational difficulties. Sensitivities around potential students’ family structures made such information “hard to capture”, he stressed.

Professor Dockery said future survey waves would enable the researchers to analyse parent’s expectations of children aged as young as 10. “If [parents] know…who’s going to go to university with a pretty high degree of accuracy by age 10, that tells us quite a bit about the sort of family processes that are at work in determining these outcomes.”

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