Do ‘first in family’ university students have different university experiences and outcomes?

by Morag Henderson, Nikki Shure and Anna Adamecz-Völgyi

Higher education is fundamentally important to both the individual and society. It produces a skilled labour force for society and for graduates, having a degree can increase lifetime earnings, reduce the risk of unemployment, and even lead to better health outcomes. Given the importance of higher education, widening access to university has become an issue of social justice and fairness. As such, universities around the world are attempting to increase the diversity of their student population using a number of criteria.

In the UK, this effort is centred on the aim to see ‘all higher education institutions excelling in teaching and reaching out to low participation groups’. This includes those from low income families, those who are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM), those from a low social class background, those who could be ‘first in family’ or ‘first generation’ graduates, those who were young carers or who have been in care, those with disabilities or special education needs (SEN), and those from minority ethnic backgrounds or who live in low university participation areas.

Our Nuffield Foundation* funded research project focuses on individuals who are ‘first in family’ (FiF), that is, those who achieve a university degree, but whose [step] parents did not. We are particularly interested to understand whether those who are first in family (FiF) take different routes through higher education than those who are children of graduate parents (non-FiF).  We find that first in family students make up two thirds of all university graduates. But they are less likely to attend Russell Group universities, and have a higher probability of non-completion, even after controlling for prior educational attainment.

The sociological theory of Effectively Maintained Inequality (EMI) underpins this research. EMI predicts that people from advantaged backgrounds find ways to maintain their advantage even when opportunities open up to the disadvantaged. In the context of university, it might be that those who are already advantaged by having a degree-educated parent take a qualitative educational advantage via subject and institution choice, over those less advantaged. Essentially, we are interested in whether higher education continues to reproduce patterns of advantage and disadvantage despite increasing the number of students attending university overall.

We use ‘Next Steps’, a longitudinal sample of English children born in 1990, who entered sixth form in 2006. They were followed every year through their secondary schooling and again later in early adulthood at age 25. The longitudinal nature of the data allows us to control in a detailed way for the children’s family background, income, and their prior attainment in order to isolate the association between parental education and their child’s education. We find that:

  • FiF young people make up 18 percent of a recent cohort in England, comprising nearly two-thirds of all university graduates
  • Comparing individuals with no parental higher education, ethnic minorities and those with higher levels of prior attainment are more likely to experience intergenerational educational mobility and become a FiF
  • Once at university, those who are FiF are more likely to study Law, Economics and Management and less likely to study other Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities than students whose parents are university graduates
  • FiF students are less likely to study at and graduate from elite universities such as those belonging to the Russell Group, which are considered more prestigious, research intensive institutions
  • FiF have a higher probability of not completing their degree, even after prior educational attainment, individual characteristics and socio-economic status are taken into account

These findings raise issues regarding the heterogeneity of the higher education experience by parental education. We show that FiF graduates have a different experience of university than their peers whose parents had a university degree. They attend different types of institutions, study different subjects, and are less likely to complete their degrees. This should prompt higher education institutions to consider ways to ensure that information about subjects and courses are clear and well distributed and consider retention programmes for those who are first in family to attend university.

Whether these differences in the experience of higher education play out in the labour market is another question which our Nuffield Foundation project will address. We will look at whether there is a labour market penalty or benefit of being FiF over and above attainment, subject studied and institution type. We are also in the process of looking at whether including FiF in the WP agenda actually captures potential students who do not already fall into one of the WP categories. We want to understand whether or not FiF is a ‘good’ measure of disadvantage. We will keep you updated on the results.

Read more:

Henderson, M., Shure, N. and Adamecz-Völgyi, A. (2019). ‘First in Family’ University Graduates in England. IZA Discussion Paper No. 12588: Institute of Labor Economics. Available at:

*The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social wellbeing in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project (grant number EDO/43570), but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at This work was also supported by the Centre for Global Higher Education (CGHE. CGHE is a research partnership of international universities supported by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Office for Students and Research England (grant reference ES/M010082/1).



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