Aspirations and preferences

Thursday’s Conference Programme included an excellent session on Aspirations and Preferences. We asked researcher Angus Holford for his reflections on the presentations and the policy-focused discussions around them.

First, Tina Rampino presented her work on gender differences in educational expectations and aspirations among teenagers in the UK. It is well known that boys have lower aspirations and expectations than girls.

They key contribution of this paper was to show that boys’ aspirations and expectations suffer a larger penalty as a result of low parental education than girls’ do, while girls are much more responsive than boys to labour market conditions, which determines the net benefit of higher education.

The second presentation, by Adeline Delavande, used questions from the Understanding Society Innovation Panel to study individuals’ expectations about attending university and parents’ expectations about the financial returns to doing so.

The male/female gap in expectation to attend university bears out that in Tina’s research, and parents expect a higher return to university for girls than boys. There is also a strong socio-economic gradient in the expectation to qualify for and apply for university. This is only reduced slightly by the prospect of scholarships for students from low-income households, so financial considerations account for only a small part of this gradient.

Policy implications and interventions

The main focus of discussion was about policy implications, with both presenters arguing for provision of better information about the returns to higher education. There was some cautionary discussion in both cases about interventions designed to raise aspirations or inform about university. For example:

  • Aspiration interventions may provoke resistance in low-educated parents, especially if they expect their children to move away.
  • Projected earnings as a result of gaining a degree will be unrepresentative of the majority of individual prospective students. There is a risk both of underselling and later disenchantment.
  • Many individuals who feel university is not the right route for their skills will be observed with low educational aspirations but high expected earnings. High aspirations in other fields can be encouraged too, but maybe attention can be drawn to the relative risk, as well average returns.

More like mum and dad

The final presentation, by Maria Zumbuehl, showed how parents’ investments in their children; proxied by time spent together or active engagement in the child’s problems; leads the children’s preferences (over ‘risk’ and ‘trust’) to become more like their parents.

As this paper did not focus on a single policy area, the discussion which followed was more methodological. For example, could there be a way to make better use of the panel structure of the dataset (the German Socio-economic Panel)?

Clearly, parents’ involvement with their children could be harnessed to improve the effectiveness of interventions targeting the preferences of children towards higher education. However, because other literature has shown there is a socio-economic gradient in parental investments, by the evidence of this final paper we may expect such interventions to further widen the socio-economic gradient in aspirations or expectations, rather than reduce it.