Parents in households where at least one parent has a degree are more likely to expect their children to qualify to go to university, to succeed if they apply and to graduate if they go there.

Better information for both students and parents could help close this gap, according to a new Nuffield-funded report from the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex.

The research by Professor Adeline Delavande and Dr Laura Fumagalli found that while parents’ income and the availability of scholarships does effect expectations about going to university, their parents’ level of education – that is, whether at least one parent has a degree – matters more.

While there have been substantial improvements in university participation of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in recent years, the gap remains significant, particularly at the most selective universities. UCAS figures show that the most advantaged applicants are six times more likely to enter a higher tariff university compared to the least advantaged.

The study set out to investigate how information about university shapes education aspirations and choices, and the role parental education plays in this.

Using survey results from the Innovation Panel of Understanding Society, the UK Household Longitudinal Study of 300 parents, they found:

  • Both children and parents who expect higher gains from having a degree are more likely to expect they or their children will apply for university.
  • Better information for both pupils and parents could encourage more children from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply for university.
  • Parents tend to underestimate the financial benefits of having a degree, so information on this could increase applications from all groups.
  • A very light-touch information intervention, such as showing some statistics about population earnings and employment to families, is powerful enough to make parents’ expectations more accurate, with these changes still visible six months later.

The researchers also looked at the role of feedback about academic ability, financial aid for 16-19 study and information about the labour market return to a university degrees. They analysed national administrative data, and survey results from about 15,000 students in English schools who were interviewed first in 2004 when in year nine, and annually since.

Overall, the researchers recommend providing students and their parents with better information about:

  • Available financial aid.
  • The requirements for university admission.
  • How to interpret results in standardised tests by offering clear and precise feedback, and a more informative and finely-tuned grading system.
  • Graduate earnings.

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