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“Want more poor students to go to top unis? Don’t segregate schools”

Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are more likely to apply to top universities if they have ‘social connectedness’ to students from elite backgrounds, writes professor Emma Tominey

The pursuit of higher education is often considered a pathway to upward mobility and success. 

However, a stark disparity exists when it comes to the representation of students from low-educated backgrounds in elite universities.

Despite the potential for academic excellence, these students face significant barriers to accessing top-tier education. 

Here I will discuss the role of “social connectedness” and its impact on students with lower-educated parents.

The unequal landscape of elite education

Elite university graduates disproportionately dominate the elite occupational sphere, becoming political, business and legal leaders with great influence. 

In the UK for instance, 75% of prime ministers and 73% of senior judges studied at Oxford or Cambridge.

But there is an alarming lack of social mobility in access to these elite universities. 

In the UK, students from private schools are 100 times more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge than their counterparts receiving free school meals.

In the US, 70% of Harvard students come from families in the top 20% of the income distribution while just 3% come from the bottom 20%.

Norway too, faces a similar issue, with 47% of elite university students belonging to the top 20% of the earnings distribution, compared to only 7% from the bottom 20%. 

This disparity is not limited to one country. It is a global phenomenon.

Social connectedness as a key factor

Cattan, Salvanes and Tominey (2023) conducted a study in Norway to unravel the underlying causes of this inequality. They found that one crucial explanation for the lack of social mobility is what they called “social connectedness”.

Students from a low socio-economic status background were much less likely to go to school with classmates whose parents were elite. This, in turn, was blocking students from enrolling into elite programmes. 

Although the lack of tuition fees in Norway eliminates financial barriers for low-income students, socio-economic segregation across schools persisted. 

The researchers sought to understand how exposure to elite peers during high school could impact students from low-educated backgrounds.

The study in Norway revealed several noteworthy findings:

  • Increasing exposure to students whose parents were elite-educated increases their enrolment in elite universities.
  • This exposure has a lasting long-term impact, improving their earnings when they reach ages 30-32.
  • Disparities persist.  Despite the positive impact, the effect of exposure to elite peers is less pronounced for low socio-economic status students compared to their peers from higher-educated backgrounds.

Exploring the why

The next natural question is, why does the effect of exposure to elite peers differ for low SES students?

To answer this, the authors delved into two pathways through which exposure to elite peers can influence enrolment in elite degree programmes.

Social connectedness can alter their application behaviour to higher education, and/or it can affect grades.

The study revealed that exposure to elite peers encourages low socio-economic status students to apply for more elite study programmes.

In other words, exposing low socio-economic status students to elite educated students during sixth form leads these students to apply for and enrol in elite education and raises social mobility.

However there is a downside which was a negative effect of exposure to elite peers on their grades. 

This decline in academic performance came from reduced teacher assessments, a crucial component of high school GPAs used for university applications.  

In other words, poorer students mixing with elite students in the same year group were more likely to be less generously marked by their teacher and this downgrade prevented the low socio-economic status students from benefitting fully from the social connectedness.

Policy recommendations

In light of these findings, two key policy recommendations emerge:

1. Rethink assessment methods

There should be less reliance on teacher assessments and more emphasis on written blind-assessed exams for low socio-economic status students in sixth form.

2. Reduce school segregation

Exposing students from lower-educated backgrounds to students from elite backgrounds can benefit those from lower-educated backgrounds by encouraging them to apply to elite universities.

This is especially important in the UK.  Norway for example has a handful of private schools, but the vast majority of students are educated in the state sector. 

In the UK, low socio-economic status students face double segregation – within state schools they are less likely to attend schools with elite educated students, and – with rising prices of private schools across years – the low socio-economic status students are much less likely to be able to afford the advantages offered by private schools.

This in turn is exacerbating existing inequalities.

The evidence suggests us that if we want to release the potential of our most disadvantaged, and capable young people, reducing socio-economic segregation among secondary school students in this country should be on the policy agenda.

Emma Tominey is a professor in the department of economics at the University of York


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