Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University report that students from working class backgrounds are motivated by studies with a clear job profile and high income, while prestige and studies with a strong identity appeal to students whose parents have university degrees.
The study is based on 60 interviews with Danish students from six university level study programs: medicine, architecture, sociology, economy, pharmacy and business studies.
The researchers found that students who chose to study medicine, architecture, economy and sociology often come from homes where the parents have completed higher education. Business studies and pharmacy often appeal to young people with a working class background, according to the study’s findings.
“There is a connection between the studies chosen by young Danes and their social background,” said education sociologist Dr. Jens Peter Thomsen. “Even for the young people who have very good grades in their A-level exams, and who could successfully seek admission to a large variety of studies, the parents’ level of education and social class play an important role in their choice.”
The students bring with them the resources they get from their families, he noted.
For example, he said, if you grow up in a home with parents who are doctors or architects with a strong professional identity, it is an obvious choice to follow the same path as your parents when you grow up.
“For young people whose parents are university educated, factors such as prestige and a strong sense of professional identity are important,” he said.
“They are attracted by an educational culture in which you are a student 24/7, and where leisure activities are tied to the identity that lies within your studies. These young people have also grown up with topical discussions around the dinner table, which also prepares them for their lives as students.”
When young people from working class homes with good grades in their A-level exams choose other paths than the “prestigious” studies, it is, among other things, due to the fact that they want a clearly defined aim of their studies, he said.
“The young people who are first-generation university students often choose studies that are more ‘9 to 5’ and less tied up to a sense of identity,” he said. “They have lower academic expectations of themselves, and they choose studies with a clearly defined goal for their professional lives.”
These students choose studies where, ultimately, jobs are easily found, he said. That’s why they do not choose to study sociology, for instance, because “it can be difficult to know what it might lead to job-wise.”
Finances do not play into the decision, at least in Denmark, according to the researchers. That is because welfare benefits means students do not have to pay tuition. State educational grants also are available.
“This helps erase the class differences, but they still exist,” he said.
“The fact that social background plays such an important role challenges our view that everyone has equal opportunities,” he said. “We will end up with a very narrow view of society if positions of power and prestige are solely reserved for children of parents with a university degree.”
For example, medical students from families of doctors may have a different view of a patient than a young person with a working class background, he noted.
Institutions of higher learning need to make an effort to recruit students from all backgrounds, according to the researcher.
“Young people who come from a working class background, and have good grades, should be encouraged to take advantage of the full range of opportunities they have,” he said. “But the effort to reach this goal must start early.”
The study was published in the scientific journal Comparative Education Review.
Source: University of Copenhagen