Children from low education backgrounds are more likely to enrol in ‘elite’ degree programmes that lead to high paying jobs if they go to school with children whose parents have those degrees themselves, says new research.

These high-paying degrees, such as medicine, economics and law from top universities (Ivy League equivalents), lead to higher lifetime earnings for graduates. This means the findings could be useful for shaping government policy to increase social mobility, say researchers.

The study of Norwegian schoolchildren found that classes where children from both low- and high-education families are more equally mixed have higher enrolment in elite programmes at top universities, equivalent to studying subjects like medicine or law at Ivy League institutions (US) or Oxford and Cambridge (UK).

The research was carried out by Professor Emma Tominey from the University of York, Dr Sarah Cattan from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, and Professor Kjell Salvanes from the Norwegian School of Economics. It is being presented today [07 June] by Professor Tominey at the Society of the Economics of the Household (SEHO) conference in Copenhagen.

In Norway, higher education is free and there are no private schools. Yet, inequalities in higher education are stark: nearly half of those attending elite institutions come from families in the top 20% of earnings, whereas only 7% come from the lowest 20%. In Norway, children’s educational records can be linked to data on their parents, including occupation, education and income.  The researchers analysed data on nearly 180,000 schoolchildren who started high school between 2002 and 2012.

The researchers were able to track these children through school, onto university (where relevant) and onto the labour market. Only 3% of students in Norway study subjects such as medicine, law, economics or engineering at the top institutions – programmes which lead to the greatest earnings in Norway.

The researchers particularly looked at two groups of students: those from lower income families whose parents did not have an elite degree and where at least one parent had no further education beyond school; and those students who had at least one parent who had achieved one of the top medical, engineering, law or economics degrees.

In a school cohort, the greater the number of students whose parents had an elite degree, the more likely it was that both groups would enrol on an elite programme themselves. The presence of the more affluent students had two main effects on lower income students: it lowered their grades in some exams but increased their likelihood of applying to one of the top degree programmes. The second factor was the stronger force, leading to them being more likely to enrol into an elite degree and for students from a low educated background, to become the first in their families to do so.

The researchers found that the effect of ‘elite peers’ was to improve grades of lower income students when exams were externally ‘blind’ marked. But when grades were teacher-assessed, the effect was that lower income students were marked down, creating a negative effect on overall grades.

In the UK, students who attend private secondary schools are around 100 times more likely to attend Oxford or Cambridge than students who are eligible for free school meals. The university a student attends can make a substantial difference to their career prospects and lifetime earnings. According to Department of Education figures from 2017, graduates of business, computing or law degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, London School of Economics and Imperial College London earn more than double the typical UK salary within five years of graduating.

Professor Tominey believes that governments should consider policies that could ensure greater integration between students from different economic backgrounds as a means of increasing social mobility.

She said: “The UK’s state school system is currently very segregated by income, with little mixing between children from lower and higher income families. Our research shows how important it is for students to mix with others who have experience of these elite institutions, whose parents have attended them, and who can therefore act both as role models and as a source of information about that academic route.

“In policy terms, this is something that is within the power of government to influence, by changing how school places are allocated to ensure a more even mix of students from different economic and educational backgrounds. While this would not necessarily be easy to implement, it could have a major impact on social mobility and educational equality.”

For more information on this work please contact Samantha Martin, Deputy Head of Media Relations, The University of York, Tel: 01904 322029, email: @email

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