Does social background thwart aspirations for higher education?

by Dirk Van Damme
Head of the Innovation and Measuring Progress division, Directorate for Education and Skills

Percentage of students who expect to complete a university degree, by socio-economic status (ESCS*), PISA 2009

Since the mid-1900s, the expansion of higher education systems has opened up opportunities for many students other than those from the elites. Higher education became the main route towards upward social mobility. Many countries designed policies to support more socially equitable, or “democratic”, access to universities, mainly by developing financial support mechanisms that compensate students from less well-off families for the study and opportunity costs associated with further education. It was seen as an essential characteristic of democracy that meritocratic access to higher education for talented and capable youth was ensured.

We now know that the social and political benefits that were expected to result from widening access to higher education were grossly overstated. In many countries, talented individuals from the middle classes and, exceptionally, the lower classes gained access to universities and benefitted from social mobility. Universities were transformed from elite schools to modern educational institutions, preparing large numbers of students for professional careers. But the expansion of the system, in itself, did not equalise education opportunities; many on the bottom rungs of the social ladder remain deprived of access to high-quality university education.

The recently published Education Indicators in Focus brief synthesises the international data currently available on the impact of social background on access to and success in higher education. The data are sobering: on average across countries that participated in the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), an individual with a parent who completed higher education is 4.5 times more likely to attend university than an individual whose parents have below upper secondary education as their highest level of educational attainment. In some countries, like Italy and Poland, the odds that a student with highly educated parents will attend university is almost ten times higher than for a child of low-educated parents; in the United States, the likelihood is nearly seven times greater. By contrast, in Canada, Korea, the Netherlands and the Nordic countries, a young person with highly educated parents is less than three times as likely to attend university as a peer with low-educated parents.

For a long time the dominant opinion among policy makers was that unequal access to higher education was mainly a financial issue. Poorer families lacked the financial means to invest in longer and more expensive education. Policies thus concentrated on providing free access and public funding to universities, and on financial support mechanisms for students from poor families. But as governments need to prioritise public expenditure in a context of austerity and fiscal constraints, these policies come under increasing pressure.

Financial compensation is now perceived as an inefficient public policy instrument to encourage talented individuals from poor families to enrol in higher education. Also, a better understanding of the high private return on investment in higher education, and the perception that public funding for higher education is an organised transfer of wealth, have prompted a shift in public policy towards private expenditure, which now accounts for 32% of total expenditure on higher education. Even if countries still use financial incentives and support mechanisms to guarantee access to deserving students from poorer backgrounds, these policy instruments are no longer regarded as the only, or the best, vehicles for ensuring equality of opportunity in higher education.

Recent research offers other insights. First, unequal access is the result of cultural rather than financial mechanisms. Second, inequality at the gates of the university is the culmination of a long process of socially biased selection from the very beginning of formal education. The expansion of higher education might have changed the values and preferences in the middle classes towards a more meritocratic and achievement-oriented view, but that has not yet happened among the lowest classes.

PISA provides ample evidence of the strong impact of socio-economic status on learning outcomes, achievement and motivation of 15-year-old students. The chart above provides a powerful representation of this. Based on PISA 2009 data, it shows the huge disparity in expectations to complete a university degree among 15-year-old students from different social backgrounds. Even after accounting for reading and mathematics performance, the difference in expectations remains large.

Personal motivation and aspirations are much more difficult to address through policy than financial barriers. The risk is that governments might see the challenge as simply too big and too complicated to handle, especially at a time when concerns about over-schooling and overcrowded universities prevail. At the same time, governments underestimate the hidden cost of socially skewed higher education. Leaving reservoirs of human capital untapped comes at a high economic and social price. Not only is it morally unfair, but it is a serious threat to the inclusiveness of modern societies.

Education Indicators in Focus, issue No. 35, by Corinne Heckmann and Camila De Moraes
On this topic, visit:
Education Indicators in Focus: 
On the OECD’s education indicators, visit:
Education at a Glance 2014: OECD Indicators:
Chart Source: OECD (2015), Education at a Glance database
*ESCS refers to the PISA index of economics, social and cultural status. See Volume II of the PISA 2012 Results for more information. Countries are ranked in descending order of percentage of students with a low ESCS who expect to complete a university degree. Source: OECD (2012), Grade Expectations: How Marks and Education Policies Shape Students'Ambitions, PISA


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