Family background and access to high ‘status’ universities

Report Overview

At least a quarter of the access gap to the top universities in England, the United States and Australia cannot be explained by academic achievement, according to new research by Dr John Jerrim. The research was presented at the Sutton Trust Advancing Access and Admissions Summit at the Royal Society in London in November, 2013.

Key Findings

  • Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are much less likely to develop the advanced cognitive skills required to enter a high status university. Less than three per cent of children from disadvantaged backgrounds in England and the US reached a ‘high’ standard (Level 5) on the PISA 2009 reading assessment. This compares to 15 per cent of children from the most advantaged backgrounds.
  • The United States has a particularly pronounced problem with young people dropping out of higher education. Almost half of those who enter university do not complete their degree. This compares to a non-completion rate of around 20 per cent in the UK.
  • Children with professional parents are approximately three times more likely to enter a high status university (rather than a non-high status university) than those with working class parents. This holds true for Australia, England and public sector elite colleges in the United States.
  • Although academic achievement up to age 18 can explain a great deal of the socio-economic gap in elite university access, it does not completely remove it. At least a quarter of the difference in England, the US and Australia is not explained by academic ability. This suggests that (cost-effective) interventions between the ages 14 and 18 may play an important role in reducing socio-economic inequalities in elite university access in the future.
  • The ‘sticker price’ of elite private US colleges (e.g. Harvard) is high compared to their counterparts in the UK (e.g. Oxford). However, the generous aid packages available mean that the actual price young people from low income backgrounds pay to attend elite private colleges in the United States is significantly lower.
  • However, the UK’s system of income contingent loans makes it harder to compare the ‘actual’ price of attending an elite university across the two countries.

Recommendations

1. Universities should be more transparent about how specific subject departments use and evaluate personal statements. This information should be shared widely, and effectively, with applicants, schools and teachers.
2. Sections of detailed analysis and reflection in personal statements are highly valued by academics. Schools should support applicants in providing opportunities to undertake and reflect upon academic enrichment activities.
3. Schools and colleges need to improve the quality of staff training to ensure that key messages are consistent and based on up to date guidelines.
4. Both universities and UCAS should consider whether the format of the personal statement could be improved to ensure it is a useful and fair indicator of an applicant’s potential.

November 13, 2013