Is it worth going to uni if you’re from a poor family?

Back in August, a teacher drew my attention to the following tweet and asked if I might be able to answer it:

The tweet was from Matt Pinkett (@PositivTeacha), teacher, blogger and author of Boys don’t try? Rethinking masculinity in schools.

My thread of tweets in response sparked a correspondence between us and, in the end, Matt was kind enough to say I had challenged his whole perspective. He suggested others might be interested too and I should publish some of my thoughts on the topic. 

So, in the first of two blogs (here’s the second), here’s how I responded to his initial question… 

IFS logo

There is plenty of research showing a significant earnings premium on average for graduates regardless of background. Probably the most comprehensive work is the paper by the IFS ‘How English domiciled graduate earnings vary with gender, institution attended, subject and socio-economic background’The Sutton Trust has also done many excellent studies on different aspects of this question which is actually a lot more complex than it sounds.

The research shows that the graduate premium for those from disadvantaged backgrounds is indeed smaller than for those from more affluent families, but it is very hard to unpick this from other factors.
Disadvantaged students are more likely to have lower grades on entry to higher education. (As a result) they’re less likely to go to highly selective universities. They’re more likely to do ‘vocational’ courses, imagining that – being supposedly directly work-related – those courses have better employment outcomes. However, unless they’re for a specific route, it’s arguable.
Disadvantaged students are more likely to have part-time jobs while studying, which are less likely to be career-related. Obviously this is their about financial survival, but it has an affect on studies and general well-being. They’re less likely to engage in co-curricular activities at uni that boost employability, probably because of pressures of time and money, and because of previous habits developed through a lack of opportunities.
Disadvantaged students are more likely to live at home, which introduces a whole range of other effects from lower social and academic engagement to care duties for relatives.
There are also intersections between disadvantaged students and ethnicity, age, disability etc – and each of these characteristics has its own set of impacts on the graduates’ employment outcomes.
The IFS study and others highlight very significant differences in the salary premium from some courses and institutions. Some courses at some unis even have a negative premium, ie. those graduates earn less than non-graduates on average.
They, however, are the exception and beware jumping to conclusions. That small set of courses with negative premiums tend to be in parts of the country where earnings are low anyway. Those grads are probably earning more than non-graduates in the area.
The unis where those courses are based also usually have a larger proportion of disadvantaged, local & mature students, so hard to say whether it’s the course that’s not getting them a premium or other factors. They may have a big premium compared to what those individuals might have earned otherwise had they not gone to university.
Imagine a poorer student in poor area whose choice is not to go to university and take whatever work they can get, or go to university after which, if they stay local, they’re still likely to earn less than non-graduates in London, but they will earn more than they would have and they be doing a more rewarding job with better prospects.
I’d call that a graduate premium, by anyone’s standards.
That’s another important point: what does a good outcome look like? Are we just talking about bigger salaries? Some people would rather be nurses than bankers.
The happiness premium is, I’d say, more important than salary.
There’s research showing graduates are more likely to live longer, less likely to smoke, more likely to report job satisfaction (and less likely to support Brexit) – all positives in my book.
There are ways of achieving similar outcomes without the cost of uni: degree apprenticeships have been touted as a great opportunity for disadvantaged students to get a degree and work experience without debts. They haven’t been going long enough to see the outcomes yet and evidence suggests it’s not disadvantaged students taking up those opportunities yet anyway.
In summary, the research shows disadvantaged students do gain hugely from higher education in terms of salary, living standards and happiness. For many it is the only real opportunity for transformation. But higher education alone does not wipe out society’s inequalities.
I would never advise any disadvantaged young person not to go to uni if they think they might gain from it, nor would I pressure someone if they can’t see the point for themselves. Maybe they will one day and, I hope, the opportunity will still be there.
If you’re interested in this topic, please see my second blog in this series: ‘Should uni be an aspiration – or a ‘failsafe’?’.
May I also recommend this recent book by Duncan Exley (@Duncan_Exley):
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