The social and academic environments of school graduates, such as their neighbourhood, school and peers, can all have an impact on their choice of further studies and career. Factors determining one's educational choice include individual characteristics, such as the student's abilities and motivation; external circumstances, such as his or her family's social and economic status; peer influence and the advice of teachers. However, studies examining the relative contributions of the above factors to the choice of academic path have revealed certain variations in students' behaviour which require further explanation.
These variations may, in part, be related to peer influence, according to Elizaveta Chernenko and Andrey Zakharov. Their study 'Factors of Educational Quality', conducted in 2014 with support from the HSE's Centre for Basic Research, examined the links between school students' immediate social environment and their choice of further education in technical fields, such as science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The researchers examined social relationships in a high school class to study the microenvironment surrounding school students before graduation. They used data from the HSE's research project ‘Monitoring educational and employment trajectories of school and higher education institution graduates’. Chernenko and Zakharov's sample includes 498 high school (eleventh grade) students from 19 Russian regions.
The researchers conducted a series of logistic regressions using the area of studies that students were planning to pursue after graduation as the dependent variable. Chernenko and Zakharov applied methods of social network analysis to describe friendships in a high school class.
According to the researchers, some peer networks are complete, i.e. all classmates are connected through friendships, while others are incomplete, i.e. many students are socially isolated and do not have friends in their class.
The study’s sample included both types of classes; about half of the peer networks were complete and did not have any isolated individuals.
Clusters are common within peer networks, i.e. friends of friends are often linked by friendships. Each student has on average 2.62 friendships, but the standard deviation is quite high at 0.7, suggesting important differences across networks.
By constructing logistic regressions using the above characteristics, the researcher found a few variables determining whether a student was likely to choose a technical occupation.
In particular, Chernenko and Zakharov tested the hypothesis that a student's choice of further education and career is somehow linked to his or her friendships in high school. They found, in particular, that having friends drawn to technical occupations is negatively associated with a student's choice of a similar career, indicating that friends do not necessarily share career interests.
Despite this, the researchers also found that peers can still influence one's career choice in favour of science, mathematics or engineering, but only when such peers are popular in the class.
In other words, if a popular student chooses a technical occupation, their friends are more likely to choose likewise.
No association was found between classmates’ average performance in algebra and individual students' likelihood to choose a technical occupation. In contrast, studying in a class which is generally poor at physics does make a difference for individual choices.
The latter was found to increase the likelihood of individual students choosing technical careers. According to Chernenko, this may be due to a perceived competitive advantage, when certain students feel that they can do much better than others.
Perhaps also due to perceived competitive advantage, students are more likely to choose technical occupations when their close friends are good, but not very good at mathematics (4 vs. 4.2 and above on a scale of 5).
However, no association was found between one's choice of a technical occupation and his or her friends' grades in physics.
Girls choose to pursue technical fields far less often than boys—even though girls’ academic performance in these fields in high school is superior to that of boys, according to the study's authors.
The reason, according to the researchers, may be that girls feel social pressure to choose other types of careers.
In fact, girls who do not have friends in their class are significantly more likely to choose technical occupations—perhaps because they feel less social pressure, conclude Chernenko and Zakharov.