Reaching invisible students: white working-class boys

Digital technologies can help bridge the gap between universities and disenfranchised social groups, says Kathy Johnson

August 24, 2019
Teenage boy with his hood up against a white brick wall
Source: iStock

University leaders greeting their newest batch of fresh-faced students in a few weeks will be very conscious that their efforts to increase diversity have so far failed one social group.

A report from the National Education Opportunity Network (NEON) released earlier this year found that the white working class are the group least likely to go to university, after the Traveller community. More than half of UK universities have a student population in which the proportion of white people from low-income families is less than 5 per cent.

The government’s social mobility report echoed these grim statistics; only 5 per cent of disadvantaged young people enrol at the most selective universities, compared with the national average of 12 per cent.

Even if they do get in, the working-class cohort struggle to stay: 8.8 per cent of them drop out before graduating, compared with 6.3 per cent of their peers from better-off families. The numbers of part-time students from lower-income backgrounds has fallen by a whopping 42 per cent over the past six years.

Boys, it seems, perceive this sense of exclusion even more acutely than girls. Anne-Marie Canning, director of social mobility and student success at King’s College London, refers to white working-class boys as “the most under-represented group in higher education”.

Last year, a TV documentary fronted by the rapper Professor Green, laid the problem bare – teenage boys from low-income families regard education as something to be escaped from, rather than an opportunity.

The government has set the university community some clear recommendations to encourage better representation from working-class young people – including actively promoting the variety of financial support packages available to students.

This makes sense, of course. But what I found encouraging was that the recommendations went on to specifically mention that ways should be found to do this in a user-friendly and digitally smart way. Our work in this area has shown us the potential for digital technology to significantly encourage better student inclusivity, via a combination of effective information delivery and reducing psychosocial barriers to entry.

One of the key barriers for young white working-class men is their lack of confidence that university life is for them. With accents, clothing and lifestyles that may be very different from their more affluent peers, it is hard for them to imagine themselves fitting in. But we know that the confidence of young people grows when they can see and talk to “people like me” – current students and even graduates who come from a background similar to their own.

This is where digital tech can be a great benefit. An online chat event set up by a university can specifically target this group while they are still at school, enabling them to see and hear from those a few years ahead of them and with a similar background. We know that during this key information-gathering stage, it can be a significant advantage to working-class young men to be able to ask questions anonymously and to listen to the questions of other people in the same position as them.

At the same time, this kind of online platform can address financial worries by including someone on the student finance team to explain any bursaries or scholarships available, or the availability of part-time jobs in the area – perhaps again drawing on the experience of other working-class students who have supported themselves financially.

Chatbots can also be useful here – computer programs designed to simulate human conversation via text chat or voice commands. They can guide a potential student or his parents through the university’s website and perhaps towards signing up for an online chat group. Because chatbots are non-judgemental and unbiased, they can help teens at least familiarise themselves with the jargon, tackle some of their initial worries and gradually build their confidence.

Once these young men have taken part in one online chat (even if they have only observed), the university can invite them for subsequent sessions on specific topics related to demystifying college life.

There is potential for this group of men to be invited to online events throughout their university life, offering extra support and helping to minimise the risk of dropping out. These events could also help men to think about future careers and raise their confidence at tackling interviews, recruitment tests and the social aspects of networking.

Universities already plough large investments into outreach and support. But by embracing digital tech platforms, they are going where teenage boys spend time already, potentially attracting them into an academic environment that, although initially alien, could prove to be the making of them.

Kathy Johnson is client partner at Meet and Engage.

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