Opening up the University: Measures for equalizing access to higher education

Opening up the University: Measures for equalizing access to higher education


von Jan O. Jonsson


For more than one hundred years most Western societies have had the explicit aim of equalizing access to higher education. Following traditional liberal values, individuals’ chances in life should not depend on circumstances of birth, for which they are not responsible. Various obstacles have been identified, curbing children’s potential. Early on, regional differences – now quite small in most countries – and socioeconomic inequality were seen as major hindrances for the pursuit of equal opportunities. Later on, gender inequality became recognized as central, though nowadays women do better than men in educational attainment in most modern countries (OECD 2009).

More recently in Europe, research into inequalities has increasingly come to focus on  ethnic minorities’ resources  and opportunities. While this issue has a long history in the USA, the large influx of Asian, African, and South American immigrants to West European countries has spawned a renewed interest in questions about inequality of educational and occupational attainment. At the same time as the focus on the ethnic/immigrant dimension has enriched this research tradition, the study of ethnic minorities’ educational opportunities has brought researchers back to the issue of socioeconomic inequality, as these two stratification dimensions are in most cases intertwined. But there is more to it than that: educational inequality, its roots and potential remedies are both similar and very different depending on whether one studies the socioeconomic or the ethnic dimension.

Socioeconomic inequality and educational expansion

Historically, raising living standards, reducing poverty and making long-term investments in education possible for more groups in society have, together with a rapid expansion of secondary and tertiary education, paved the way for a more equal distribution of educational opportunities. However, when understood as relative differences, educational inequality has proven quite resistant to change. In fact, socioeconomic differences, rather than having been eradicated, have remained painstakingly visible in modern society (for a review, see Breen and Jonsson 2005).

What appears to have happened in many countries is that a socioeconomic equalization has occurred as secondary education has expanded (Shavit and Blossfeld 1993), but that inequalities have been more persistent at the higher, that is, tertiary, level of education despite its expansion (Shavit, Arum, and Gamoran 2007). Expansion is thus not a sufficient condition for equality, and it may probably not even be a necessary condition: The equalization of living conditions in the parental generation can play the same role (Erikson 1996). The total effect, it is important to note, is equalization in many industrialized countries when studied over a longer time period (Breen et al. 2009).

Performance and choice effects

Why does educational expansion not normally lead to equalization? And how can we understand the lingering effects of socioeconomic background on educational attainment? Sociologists have analyzed these questions by separating „performance effects” from „choice effects”, often referring to the seminal work of Boudon (1974) – who called them „primary” and „secondary” effects, respectively. The idea is that one part of the outcome – socioeconomic disparities in rates of transition to higher education, however defined – comes about because children of more advantaged home backgrounds perform better in school. This is indicated by higher grades (or test results) which are a strong predictor of educational transitions, partly because schools sometimes have minimum formal requirements on performance or give „strong advice” based on previous performance, partly because such indicators of ability boost students’ views of their probability of success at higher educational levels. The other part of educational inequality refers to the process of „choice”, whereby students from more advantaged social backgrounds decide to continue at higher education to a higher degree than students from other backgrounds with the same level of performance (e.g., with the same grades) . 

Importantly, the two processes – performance and choice –refer to different mechanisms behind educational inequality. Differences in performance likely depend to a large extent on socialization, that is, parents’ continuous impact and influence on children and their support in the learning process – a foundation of socioeconomic differences that almost anyone would judge normatively defendable as part of the „legitimate parental partiality” (e.g., Swift 2005). In addition, there is a role for genetic transmission of abilities that are rewarded in school, although this is probably a lesser one (cf. Björklund, Jäntti, and Solon 2005). These intergenerational mechanisms are subtle, based on family processes, and mainly beyond public policy. However, it is possible, although clear evidence is as yet forthcoming, that public investments in children, such as the provision of pre-schools of high quality, may equalize school performance (e.g., Heckman 2006; Barnett 2008). Likewise, allocating more resources to primary schools and reducing class sizes may have equalizing effects (Kruger 2003). The same may go for remedial education, or any school-based measure to improve the situation for those who achieve the poorest.

Educational choice ¬– greater scope for educational reform

The processes behind socioeconomic differences in educational choice, given similar performances, are likely to be of another kind. Choice is a forward-looking decision, reflecting what one wants to study, and what kind of position one wants in the labour market (and which ones one seeks to avoid). Such choices can be thought of as being guided by individuals’ (and families’) estimation of the costs and benefits of, as well as the probability of success in different alternatives, where costs and benefits need not be conceptualized in economic terms only (e.g., Erikson and Jonsson 1996). Knowing how to navigate the educational system and how to find relevant and reliable information, as well as having economic security, are all important components here, and are likely to disadvantage children from poorer and less educated homes.

Therefore, it is probable that school policies as well as fiscal policies have the potential of equalizing educational choices. One particularly important aspect of choices is at what age they are made. There is a lot to suggest that decisions taken at young ages are more dependent on family background than those taken at older ages (Breen and Jonsson 2000). One possible explanation for some parents’ reluctance to encourage their children towards higher education is that if these parents themselves have little own experience of higher education, they need more convincing indications for their offspring’s probability of success at more demanding tracks or higher levels of education in order to make such a recommendation (Erikson and Jonsson 1996). Therefore, postponing the first important decision, or fork, in the educational system is likely to have an equalizing effect. Evidence from analyses of Sweden’s comprehensive school reform in the 1960s – which delayed the first transition from age 11-13 to age 16 – supports this assertion (Erikson 1996; Meghir and Palme 2005).

The separation of performance from choice effects is also relevant for policy issues. Studies of their relative importance reveal that they are both sizeable, at least in England and Sweden (Jackson et al. 2005; Erikson and Rudolphi 2010). Given how entrenched performance effects are in family processes, it appears the most promising strategy to try to reduce choice effects – that is, to encourage children from different backgrounds but with the same ability to make similar educational choices. An important part of this is to reduce early self-selection among those who come from homes with little educational experience and with less economic resources. This could be done, for example, by postponing early selection, avoiding tracking or ability grouping in school classes, and designing an educational system that is easy to navigate, and that encourages gifted children to pursue an educational career irrespective of origin (cf. Erikson and Jonsson 1993).

However, one limit of such strategies may be that children of different socioeconomic origins see varying usefulness or „utility” in attaining higher education, resulting in what descriptively could be seen as socioeconomic differences in educational aspirations. The argument is that children (and their parents) first and foremost seek to avoid intergenerational downward social mobility, which in practice means that the „cost” of a given distance of social demotion is higher than the corresponding „benefit” of the same distance of social ascendance (Boudon 1974; Erikson and Jonsson 1996). This means that children from different backgrounds may have the same relative educational aspirations, but differ in their absolute (actual) aspirations. Because children from more advantaged origins both have high incentives to attain higher education (in order to match, eventually, their parents’ socioeconomic status) and economic, cultural, and social resources to achieve this goal, it is unlikely that choice effects could be eliminated.

By dividing the „total” inequality into performance and choice effects we can get a better understanding of our question why expansion not necessarily leads to equalization: it is because middle-class children with relatively poor grades are the first to utilize expanding opportunities in systems where educational choice is prominent. Their aspirations trump their previous performance. It would, however, be wrong to assume that their high aspirations are irrational in most cases. These children can count on parental support also at higher levels of education, meaning that their probability of success is high also with relatively mediocre grades. Their grades may, to be sure, be a barrier to prestigious university programmes such as medical school, but they are likely to find some programme that is commensurate with their ability and at the same time opens the doors to middle-class jobs.

Ethnic minority disadvantage – and advantage

We can now turn to the question of ethnic inequality in education, using the analytical tool of separating performance from choice effects. Let us begin with three empirical generalizations from previous studies (see the reviews by Kao and Thompson 2003; Heath and Brinbaum 2007; Heath, Rothon, and Kilpi 2008). First, the educational outcomes of children in most ethnic minority categories are poorer than those of children of non-minority parents. This goes, not surprisingly, for children who recently immigrated themselves, but is also true (though to a lesser extent) for children who either were born in the host country, or who arrived before school-start (i.e., groups that are often termed „second generation” and „one-and-a-half generation” immigrants).

Second, within minority categories the same socioeconomic processes appear to be at work as in the majority population, and when comparing minority and majority children with similar socioeconomic origins, their educational attainments are overall fairly similar. Third, there is heterogeneity between minority categories, some doing very well, others quite poorly. In particular, in many host countries groups from the Far East tend to do well, whereas some groups with North African, South American, and West Asian background are less successful in their attainments.

When broken down into processes of school performance and educational choice, we would expect children of immigrants to do worse in both dimensions. Their parents, after all, often are not fluent in the host countries’ language and have little experience and knowledge of how the school system „works”, i.e., what is rewarded and not, what choices will be optimal for keeping doors open to higher education, etc. (e.g., Kristen 2005). Using large-scale population data for Sweden, and distinguishing many minority categories, Jonsson and Rudolphi (2010) analysed performance and choice effects in the transition to secondary education; and Jackson, Jonsson, and Rudolphi (2010) did the same for England and Sweden, extending the analyses to the transition to tertiary education.

The results of these studies are intriguing. Some minority categories, particularly boys, face problems with their academic performance and have a relatively strong tendency of dropping out early – supporting the common interpretation of ethnic minority youth as being especially vulnerable. Other categories, notably many groups originating in Asia (especially the Far East, and in Sweden also Iranians), perform well in school and clearly surpass children of majority origin. But what is more surprising, and somewhat counter-intuitive, is that all minority groups make more „ambitious” (academic) educational choices than those of majority ascent (controlling for grades). In total, ethnic minority children do well in school, and there is no ground for alarm in general – although there are groups at risk.

The results for England and Sweden are not unique. The „positive” choice pattern has been found (though with fewer analysed minority groups, different types of data, shorter longitudinal windows, and somewhat different methods) also in France (Brinbaum and Cebolla-Boado 2007), in the Netherlands (van de Werfhorst and van Tubergen 2007), and in Germany (Dollman 2010; Relikowski, Schneider, and Blossfeld 2009). While it is expected that a choice-driven system facilitates minority students’ high aspirations to materialize as high transition rates, it is noticeable that also in countries with early selection (the Netherlands, Germany) a similar pattern emerges – although choice-driven systems normally enable more students to pass over to tertiary education.

But why do minority children demonstrate such high educational aspirations? There are several plausible mechanisms behind this. For example, the opportunity costs for continuing school  are lower if these children face small chances in the youth labour market, perhaps due to discrimination or lack of networks. They, and their families, may judge the utility of higher education to be very high, not because they want to avoid downward mobility in relation to their parents, but because they want to regain the socioeconomic position that their families had before the migration – their reference point lies further back in time, as it were. Also, in case the family has plans to move again, they may give precedence to general and portable skills. In addition, higher education may be the best guarantee for equal treatment in the labour market, as outright discrimination appears to be strongest for manual work (Riach and Rich 2002). Finally, cultural differences in attitudes towards learning and attainment, and in the role of the family in pursuing such goals, may play a role. There is little research yet that can cast light on these alternative, or complementary, explanations.


Comparing socioeconomic and ethnic differences in educational attainment due to performance and choice effects illustrates the complexity of contemporary educational stratification. While an expanding and open school system benefits talented children of less advantaged backgrounds because it provides the necessary opportunities and incentives also for those with little parental backing, it also provides ample opportunities for less able children of more fortunate origins and with high aspirations. If schools were tougher in selecting students based on their previous performance for higher education, the importance of socioeconomic background would decrease substantially.

On the other hand, this would be to the disadvantage for ethnic minority children, many of whom owe their educational attainment more to their ambitious choices than their grades. An expanded system, built on the comprehensive school principle, mass education at secondary level, and with a non-elitist tertiary level education, would seem to have the potential of equalizing educational outcomes while at the same time providing students with ample room for making their own choices. It is likely that more targeted reforms, such as economic support to poorer families and to schools in disadvantaged areas, are easier to accommodate within such a growing educational system.

However, inequality as understood as relative chances is likely to prevail also in expanding systems. One possible way of paving the way for poorly performing students, such as children from homes with little experience of higher education, and children of some immigrant groups, would be to increase resources for those who fall behind early on in their schooling career – including support for pre-school education (cf. Becker 2010). Probably even more efficient is direct support to poorer families, in the form of child allowances, scholarships, or the abolishment of fees and other costs for higher education.

There are also measures that are not so costly. One is to organize schooling in a lucid way, to provide information on educational alternatives, and to support parents and students in their educational choices. Another is to create an educational system where higher educational institutions have strong incentives to recruit students for their programmes – such a recruiting system would create pull mechanisms for children from less resourceful homes and compensate for the push mechanisms that favour middle-class children. While such measures are unlikely to dramatically change the pattern of educational inequality, they would probably have positive effects on recruitment to higher education – both for equality and for quality.


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February 2011

Jan O. Jonsson is Professor of Sociology at the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI), Stockholm University.