Can we blame universities for inequality in educational attainment?

I can see where this article is coming from.  Inequality in educational attainment can translate into inequality in incomes.  If people from poor households have lower educational attainment then we have a generational link between low incomes, which implies lower income mobility.  This is something that we may find unjust.

Why do I say “may”, well this depends on the cause doesn’t it – why does this inequality exist.

Now I don’t disagree that educational attainment is associated with income inequality, and the narrowing of gaps in educational attainment has been associated with lower income inequality.  I also don’t disagree that, looking at a person in isolation, lower mobility can be associated with lower opportunity.

But I am from a low income area and I am not sure we can blame universities for the fact that they primarily have students from higher deciles.

When I was growing up I was repeatedly told university was a waste of time, and to look for a apprenticeship or undertake some type of vocational training.  I was told that you only went to university if you already knew people, and that I would end up with no money and lots of debt.  Attitudes may have changed in my hometown at this point, but I have heard similar stories from students who have come from small towns in recent years.

My unpopular opinion is that university entrance is not a particularly high bar for anyone with the capability to do the “highly remunerated” work mentioned in the NZ Herald article.  If people from poor communities are not undertaking university education it is likely because those schools, those communities, and those families, do not believe that university is a worthwhile endeavour for them.  The “long read” gives an example of this right up front, but to me that shows that the issue is almost entirely not about universities – and instead about varying communities attitude to undertaking higher education.

If opportunity is there and there is a failure it could be due to these incorrect expectations.  But there may be other systemic issues that lead to less education by these groups.  These are complex but we can have the following failures that we may view as relevant:

  1. Peer-group effects:  Wanting to do the same thing as your friend.
  2. Family effects:  Undertaking the same thing as your parents.
  3. Low income insecurity:  Being unwilling to take on debt because you view your life through the lens of low income, and have a different perception of risk associated with the student loan.
  4. Low income family effects:  Being unable to undertake investment in human capital as you are required to help within your family due to limited income – familial bonds are important.
  5. Cultural effects:  A community, or group, that identifies themselves either without reference to university education – or against it.

If that is a failure then we need to address it.  If it is about expectations then we need to make the case to these communities and these groups that their children can succeed in such an environment.  If it is one of the others then we need to consider how they are relevant and how to make sure there is a functional opportunity to get education.

Finally, we should also make sure we aren’t contradicting ourselves when we talk about how important vocational work is while also saying people should go to university. If vocational jobs are in such high demand people from low decile areas may be making good choices rather than simply chasing what they see as “status seeking” education …