The phenomenon of university undermatch, and why getting poor students into university just isn’t enough
Higher education has long been thought of as a tool to equalise opportunities, with governments around the world spend billions per year on encouraging disadvantaged students into university through financial aid and other widening participation strategies. Indeed, the Office for Students has recently set ambitious new targets to encourage universities to widen access. But is simply getting poor students into university enough? Our new research project, funded by the Nuffield foundation*, suggests that we need to pay much more attention to the types of universities and subjects that disadvantaged students enrol in, if we really want to improve their life chances.
As a team (along with co-authors Stuart Campbell (UCL Institute of Education), and Richard Murphy from University of Texas at Austin), examine the quality match between students and the courses they attend, using data on a cohort of students who left school and enrolled in university in 2008. We are interested in whether certain groups (e.g. disadvantaged students) are more likely to undermatch, by attending courses that are less selective than might be expected given their A-level grades. We also examine whether certain types of students overmatch – i.e. attend courses that are more selective than might be expected given their grades.
We examine this phenomenon of mismatch along two dimensions of course ‘quality’. First, we consider a student to be well matched to their course if they have similar A level scores to others on the course (attainment match). For example, a high-attaining student would be well matched if they attend a course with equally high attaining students. They would be under-matched if they attend a course where their fellow students have lower grades than they do (suggesting they could have attended a more academically prestigious course), and over-matched if they attend a course where the other students on their course have higher grades than they do.
Second, we rank courses based on the average earnings of their graduates 5 years later, and consider a student to be well matched if that course has a similar ranking to their own individual ranking by attainment (earnings match). For example, a high attaining student would be well-matched if they attend a course with high earnings potential, and would be under-matched if they are high attaining, but their course has low average earnings.
We find a significant amount of mismatch in the English system, with around 15-23% of students under-matching and a similar proportion over-matching. Importantly, we find that students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds are more likely to undermatch than those from rich backgrounds. Comparing low and high SES students at every level of attainment, disadvantaged students attend less academically prestigious courses, and courses with lower earnings potential, than those from high SES backgrounds. So these students have the same A-level attainment, but are attending lower ‘quality’ courses. This has obvious implications for equity, and for equalising opportunities.
But economic disadvantage is not the only dimension of inequality we study. Examining mismatch by gender, we find that female students attend courses that are just as academically selective as male students (attainment match), but they attend courses which have lower future average earnings than men, comparing students with the same A level attainment. This has important implications for equity and for the gender pay gap.
So what should policy makers do? We examine three important factors which might drive this mismatch in an attempt to work out potential policy solutions. First, we consider the choice of subject studied at degree level, comparing students of similar academic attainment and studying the same degree subject, the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students remains. This tells us that low SES students are studying at lower ‘quality’ institutions relative to high SES students, rather than choosing lower ‘quality’ subjects for their courses.
What about the role of geography? It is well known that low SES students are more likely to attend universities close to home, but does this drive them to choose a less selective institution? If we just consider the group of students living close to home, we still see differences in the institutions that disadvantaged students attend compared to more advantaged students. High attaining low SES students tend to enrol in post 1992 institutions near home, whereas high attaining high SES students are more likely to attend a nearby Russell Group university. There may therefore be scope for some outreach work for high ranking universities to attract local disadvantaged students. Interestingly, those low SES students who move further away from home to attend university appear to be as well-matched as similar attaining high SES students.
Our third factor of interest is school attended, which we find accounts for the majority of mismatch among low SES students. The implication is that factors correlated with high school such as peers, school resources, information, advice and guidance (IAG) at school, and sorting into different types of schools, play an important role in student match. Unpicking what it is that is driving this important schools channel is an important step for future research.
Turning to our gender gap in earnings mismatch, we find no role for distance to university or schools attended. But we find a very important role for degree subject studied. The fact that women attend courses with lower future average earnings than men is largely driven by the subjects that women are studying, rather than the institutions they attend. For example a high attaining male student might choose a subject such as engineering, which is typically high returns, whereas a high attaining female student might choose a subject such as English or History, commanding a lower average salary.
So what can we do? The evidence suggests that an intervention that may help to reduce SES and gender gaps in match would be to improve the level and quality of information available to under-matched students, for example on the attainment profile of students on each course, and labour market returns.
Some recent studies have investigated the importance of providing information to low SES students specifically to improve match (Dynarski et al, 2018, Sanders et al., 2018). Our results highlight that it may also be beneficial to target women in a similar way, providing information on potential earnings associated with both institution and field of study. However, as with most studies of mismatch, we have no information on the preferences of students. Women may be well-informed on the earnings potential of subjects, but simply prefer not to study them. Similarly, it may be the case that low SES students prefer to attend less academically challenging institutions even when their attainment levels suggest they are academically prepared. This could be down to perceptions about institutions not being a good fit for them. Our finding on geography suggests that university widening participation units could do some important outreach work in these cases to challenge perceptions (Sanders et al., 2018).
read more in our working paper: http://cep.lse.ac.uk/pubs/download/dp1647.pdf
this blog first appeared on wonkhe, on 5th December 2019
*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 (172585), but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. More information is available at http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org.
The University of Bologna, considered to be the first official university, was established in the late 11th century, and some scholars in need of finances were offered loans. This type of provision was not formalised as a student loan system until 1240 when the Bishop of Lincoln did so using money from the University of Oxford.
Many other universities followed suit, but it took until 1951 for the government of Colombia to initiate the world’s first national student loan scheme, known as ICETEX, which is still in (faltering) operation.
Over the 1960s and beyond, these arrangements became commonplace and today the higher education financing systems of the vast majority of countries are underpinned by student loan schemes.
There is a consensus in economics that loans are an essential part of government higher education policy to help relatively poor prospective students pay for tuition and-or to provide income support during periods of full-time study.
The reason is that, unlike in many other areas of funding (such as mortgages to finance the purchase of a house), commercial (bank) borrowing by students for human capital investments is unavailable simply because in the event of default a lending agency bears all risk; there is no collateral available to be sold to offset the cost of uncollectible debts.
Until 1989 these systems were all characterised by the collection of debt over a given time period, like a mortgage, and are known as time-based repayment student loans or TBRL.
However, nearly 30 years ago there began a quiet revolution internationally in higher education financing policy. This happened in Australia with the introduction of a student loan system in which debt obligations are not based on time, but instead depend on the future income of the debtor.
The relationship between A-level subject choice and league table score of university attended: the ‘facilitating’, the ‘less suitable’, and the counter-intuitive
By Catherine Dilnot, UCL Institute of Education
As the school exam season gets under way, English 18-year-olds hoping to go to a selective university will typically be taking papers in only three A-level subjects, chosen two years earlier from scores of possible subjects approved nationally, although in practice from the somewhat smaller number offered by their school or 16-18 college. This early specialism in so few subjects can have long-term consequences.
For many UK degree courses particular A-levels will be required – for example biology and chemistry for medicine. But many others don’t have subject pre-requisites, including popular degrees like business and law. So whether a sixteen year old isn’t yet sure what they want to do at university, or has an idea but wants to do a course without pre-requisites, it’s difficult for them to know which subjects to choose. The question then is whether some of the large number of A-level subjects available are more helpful than others in getting them to the university of their choice. Recent reforms have reduced the number of A-level courses approved for teaching in English schools from over 90 to 60, but it is still a bewildering array, both for students choosing, and for schools and colleges deciding what subset to provide.
One important reason that subject choice matters is because we know the sorts of A-levels chosen by 16-year-olds vary by socio-economic background. And while the number of young people going to highly selective university from low SES backgrounds has increased over recent years, UCAS figures for 2017 show that an 18-year-old in the top SES quintile is ten times as likely to attend than someone at the bottom. It’s clear that most of this gap is a result of differential prior attainment, but evidence on whether some subjects are helpful for entry to highly selective university could help chip away at the SES gap.
This blog is based on a full-length article published at https://www.brookings.edu/research/lessons-from-the-end-of-free-college-in-england/
Earlier this month, New York became the first US state to offer all but its wealthiest residents free tuition at public four-year institutions in the state. This new ‘Excelsior Scholarship’ doesn’t make college completely free, nor is it without significant restrictions. Still, it demonstrates the growing strength of the free college movement in the United States.
The free college movement in the US is typically associated with liberal and progressive politics, and motivated by concerns about rising inequality and declining investments in public goods like education. Americans are thus sometimes surprised to hear the story of the end of free college in England was built upon very similar motivations.
Until 1998, full-time students in England could attend public universities completely free of charge. Two decades later, most public universities in England now charge £9,250 – equivalent to about $11,380, or 18% more than the average sticker price of a U.S. public four-year institution.
Has this major restructuring of higher education finance over the last twenty years led the English system backwards or forwards in terms of improving quality, quantity, and equity in higher education? We find that at a minimum, ending free college in England has not stood in the way of rising enrollments, and institutional resources per student (one measure of quality) have increased substantially since 1998. Moreover, after many years of widening inequality, socioeconomic gaps in college attainment appear to have stabilized or slightly declined.
Higher education finance might be the last thing on America’s minds when they cast their votes on Tuesday. However, the fact that both candidates have set out plans to reform the US’ student loan repayment schemes is perhaps indicative of the importance of this issue in the US. The problem is, both candidates are just messing with the small print, and their plans which will do very little to help graduates struggling with student debt.
Trump intends to push for an income-driven repayment plan that would increase the level of the payments students have to make (by increasing the cap on payments from 10 to 12.5 percent of income) but reduce the repayment period to 15 years from its current period of 20-25 years (depending on the scheme). Meanwhile Clinton has endorsed the current plans, with the caveat that she aims to simplify the number of plans.
But will these proposals help students who are struggling with their loan repayment? The short answer is no.