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Shattering the Family’s ‘Glass Ceiling’

Why young people go to university


Attitudes towards education are often inherited, with parents explaining to their children what university education can give them. They offer very pragmatic arguments—that higher education ensures a more successful career, interesting work and a good income. But there are also other arguments that should not be underestimated. University education provides not only a social, but also a cultural lift, the opportunity to live in an intellectual environment and develop your abilities. At this time when many universities are holding open house, IQ.HSE draws on a study by HSE scholars Tatiana Chirkina and Amina Guseynova to explain the attitudes towards education that parents give their children and which considerations they might have overlooked.

In Search of a Better Life

Many studies have shown that parents’ socioeconomic status (SES)—their education, income, professional status and cultural capital—largely determines their children’s ambitions and influences their educational path. The mother and father sometimes make these educational choices for their teen based on their own convictions and life circumstances.

However, this ‘parental ceiling’—the high hopes that parents have for their children—can hinder offspring from achieving much more. Parental ideas about a child’s abilities, opportunities and needs can limit the young person, cause self-doubt and, as a result, prevent social mobility.

Even parents simply being unaware of the opportunities available for a university education can deprive a young person of a successful future. ‘My parents had doubts. They thought I wouldn’t be able to study,’ said 38-year-old sales clerk Anna K. But I had good grades and could have [gotten into a university]’. She believes that if someone had explained to her that ‘it’s better to get a higher education’, she ‘would have a different life’ and associate with  ‘interesting and cultured people’. But her parents convinced her to ‘wrap up her studies quickly, get a profession and start earning a living’.

Anna raises her daughter differently. ‘I always tell her — a university education is key. We’ll pay for tutors and cover tuition fees. Just keep studying in order to have a better life.’

There are many reasons why parents do not encourage their children to get a university education: from poverty and the need for a young person to enter the labour market to help out the family, to doubting whether it’s possible. ‘My daughter won’t win a scholarship and I can’t pay for her studies’, complains 40-year-old hairdresser Aigul M. ‘And I don’t want to take out a loan. I’ve had problems with that in the past.’

‘I didn’t go anywhere to study after the army,’ said Sergey S., a 50-year-old driver, ‘because I had to support my mother and sister.’ His 17-year-old son, Anton, goes to vocational school, but Sergey wants him to go to university next. ‘All the companies hire people with college degrees,’ he said. ‘We tell Anton that going to university is in his own best interests,’ Sergey emphasised, ‘and that he is capable of it, but that he’ll have to work hard.’

To succeed and be in demand

In their study, Tatiana Chirkina and Amina Guseynova found that 80% of families, regardless of their educational level and income, ‘consider higher education as a value and would like their children to have the opportunity to receive it.’ They see a college degree as an opportunity to succeed in life.

Among the main arguments parents make in favour of higher education are that it provides a good income (66%), career prospects (64%), the opportunity to become a specialist in wide demand (56%) and the possibility of pursuing interesting, creative work (27%). These are predictable arguments based on people’s basic needs.

However, higher education is often underestimated as a resource for social and personal development. This is apparently not a top consideration for many people. Only 14% of respondents said that the opportunity to live among educated people was an advantage of studying at a university, and only 9% cited the importance of becoming a cultured person.

Their study is based on surveys of university students’ families that were conducted in 2020 as part of HSE project Monitoring the Economics of Education. That effort involved 622 families with schoolchildren in grades 8-11 who faced choices about their future studies. The 32,600 students surveyedvcame from universities in 80 different regions.

The study considered parents’ education and income to determine their SES. Of those surveyed, 57% of mothers and fathers had higher education and 43% did not. Incomes were assessed according to what a family was able to buy. Those who could afford only food and clothing (59%) were listed as low income, those who could also purchase home appliances (28%) were considered middle income, and those who could afford automobiles and real estate (13%) were high income.

New Horizons

It is generally known that students of prestigious universities often come from more educated and wealthier families. The higher the financial, educational and cultural capital of the parents, the stronger the educational aspirations of the children.

‘Privileged’ teens benefit from family attitudes towards a good education, parental investment in their studies and the high academic performance associated with this. They are more likely to study in good schools and are better at navigating the university system: they know where best to study and, as a result, are less likely to end up in subpar educational institutions. In other words, such young people are less likely to attend a university that does not match their academic achievements.

In effect, schoolchildren from families with high SES simply have no choice but to obtain a higher education as a key condition for success in life. And even when such children do only moderately well in school, their parents provide them with strategies that enable them to get into college.

Young people from families with few resources are in a much less advantageous position. They know less about which possibilities exist for higher education and, even when they have good grades, are often less likely to risk going to top universities — although they are the ones who would benefit most from such a boost to their social mobility.

High-achieving, wealthy families consider higher education indispensable. ‘You gain a completely different outlook at university and you take a step up’, 39-year-old engineer Vladislav N. told IQ.HSE. ‘You learn to think, to reflect. You even treat your health differently.’ Olga T., a 51-year-old doctor agrees. ‘The university environment is very important. It teaches you to be good to yourself. It shows you what to aim for and maybe even whose example to follow.’

High school juniors and seniors from families with high SES are focused on the long-term, while the children of less privileged parents do not engage in ‘strategic’ planning. They often internalise their parents’ aspirations and seek less prestigious jobs. Often, such young people do not see the benefit of higher education and enter the labour market earlier.

Families with low SES often make educational choices based primarily on their children’s academic performance. If a child gets poor grades, they see it as indicating the child has limited abilities and should go to vocational school. Wealthy parents see poor grades as a signal that their child is not trying hard enough and needs private tutoring.

The Demand for Status

The results of the current study closely match earlier research. Most parents want higher education for their children, regardless of their SES. Opinions diverge, however, regarding the quality of the university. For 59% of parents without a degree, any university will do, while 51% with a degree feel that way. On the whole, though, parents with a higher education are more selective: 35% want their children to go to top schools, as compared to 22% of parents without a degree. Parents without a higher education are almost five times (14%) more likely to be satisfied with only secondary education for their children than parents with university degrees (3%).

Family incomes also account for significant differences between the groups. Forty-one percent of wealthier respondents want their offspring to attend top universities versus 25% of lower income respondents. Low-income respondents are more likely (14%) to anticipate that their children will attend less prestigious universities or else go to vocational school. Thus, families with higher SES hold greater aspirations regarding their children’s education.

Educational Goals

Children from families with fewer resources often fail to reach their educational potential. Students from more privileged backgrounds, on the other hand, often aspire to more than is within their abilities.

The current study also confirms this. Respondents who hold university degrees are more positive in assessing their children’s chances for obtaining higher education. Many expect their children to earn a specialised degree (30%) or a master’s degree (33%). By contrast, those figures are 25% and 14% respectively among parents with fewer resources, 38% of whom expect their children to attend vocational school — more than in other groups.

Classifying respondents according to their level of income produces the following picture: thirty-one percent of the wealthier respondents expect their children to earn two university degrees, while 23% of those with average incomes expect this of their children. Fewer respondents mentioned other educational goals, with 28% saying they expected their children to earn a master’s degree, 26% a specialised degree and 5% a bachelor’s degree. And families with average incomes are more likely (29%) to aim for a master’s degree.

A Financial Cushion for the College Years

Getting an education is associated with expenses, including the need to support the young person during their studies. A family’s resources and expectations largely influence how many years a teen will study. Respondents were asked to what level of education they were prepared to financially support their children. Here, too, the groups differed according to their SES.

Almost one-half (49%) of highly educated parents are prepared to support their children until they earn a master’s degree, while 28% said they would do so only until they earn a bachelor’s. For parents without college degrees, these figures stand at 29% and 24%, while 30% are prepared to support their offspring until they graduate from a vocational or technical school.

Although members of all three income groups are willing to support their children until they graduate with a specialised degree or a master’s, 53% of the wealthier respondents express such readiness, while 35% of those with fewer resources feel this way. Of course, those in the latter group would need additional support during their studies.

The Meaning of Higher Education

Respondents with a university degree and those who are wealthier often attach particular importance to university education—58% and 56% respectively—whereas 40% and 47% of respondents without such degrees and with fewer resources feel this way.

Employers often focus not only on the degree itself, but also on the status of the educational institution. The fact that a candidate has studied at a prestigious university indicates high-quality preparation and high motivation. As already mentioned, students from families with high SES go to such universities. In this study, students were asked to name their reasons for choosing a particular university. The five most common responses are as follows:

 a strong education in their chosen field (33%);

 the university’s reputation (30%);

 qualified teachers (27%);

 the university is close to home (22%);

 recommendations from relatives and acquaintances (18%);

 relatively simple admission requirements (17%);

 the university is highly ranked (17%).

Thus, the choice of university is primarily influenced by the quality of the education it offers and its reputation.

Barriers to Education

The main barrier to higher education is its cost. As many as 35% of parents consider the cost of higher education and related expenses as too high and 17% said too few full scholarships were available. Eleven percent said they needed to begin earning a living before they could complete their higher education.

Another serious barrier is academic performance, as well as young people’s lack of interest in studying. Approximately 11% of parents believe their children are not passionate enough about it to continue their studies at the university. Approximately 13% cited their children’s low grades and felt they would be a barrier to performance-based admissions requirements.

Parents who felt their children would be unable to obtain a higher education were asked additional questions as to what barriers they saw. Almost two-thirds (64%) cited the high cost of education, 55% emphasised the lack of scholarships and 32% said their children would have to start earning a living rather than attend university.

Forms of Financial Support

A number of financial instruments exist to expand young people’s access to higher education. For example, banks in the Czech Republic offer loans to pay for tuition that the borrower has 15 years to repay, starting from the moment his salary reaches the national average. In Norway, the State Bank offers scholarships and loans to students with financial need. The UK has a system of scholarships, grants and student loans to support both full-time and part-time students. Australia practices direct investment in its human capital: an investor pays for a student’s education, who then pays back a fixed share of his future salary.

Since 2010, Russia has also offered state-subsidised student loans. These have a grace period of nine months from the time of graduation, during which the borrower can find a job. The person has 15 years from the date of graduation to repay the loan. During the initial period, the student pays only the interest on the loan, and in the second, the principal debt. The study found that parents with a higher education are more likely to be informed about student loans (46%) and the organisations that issue them, and that 7% already know on which terms they are given. The corresponding figures for parents without a university degree are 35%, 8% and 3%.

The distribution of responses by income level paints a similar picture. Wealthy parents were most likely to say that they had heard of the existence of such loans (48%) and creditor organisations (18%). Among respondents with fewer resources, those figures are 38% and 8%.

But there is a near consensus in views about the benefits of student loans. Twenty-one percent of respondents both with and without university degrees say that higher education is ‘definitely useful’, while 66% with degrees and 64% without say such loans are ‘rather useful’.

When broken down according to income, 34% of the wealthier respondents rate loans as ‘definitely useful, while only 17% of those with average incomes and 21% with low incomes do so. In all, 55%, 70%  and 65% of those same groups, respectively,  rate loans as ‘rather useful’.

When asked whether they would apply for a loan if necessary, 21% of parents with degrees and 19% without said ‘definitely yes’, while 55% and 57%, respectively, answered ‘probably, yes’.

Based on income, the breakdown looks like this: 26% of wealthier parents would be willing to apply for a loan, while 15% of those with medium incomes and 21% with low incomes would. Wealthy respondents have more stable incomes and are more confident in their ability to repay a loan. More than one-half of respondents in each income group said they would very likely apply for loans.

Respondents were also asked about the reasons for refusing a loan. Most said they were reluctant to live in debt (43%). This is followed by distrust of financial institutions (17%) and unfavorable loan terms (14%). Thus, the issuance of educational loans is hindered by the negative reputation of loans in general, as well as of creditor organisations.

Expand Access to Education

The decision to get a university education appears to be almost  an imperative. However, the quality of that education differs among the groups. Wealthy and educated parents want their children to attend the best universities in the country. Parents with fewer resources often aim for less selective universities.

Students loans are one way to make higher education more accessible to students from low SES families. But despite the fact that such loans have been available for more than a decade, many parents know little about them. This means there is a clear need to raise awareness about such loans.

Another measure that could help low-income students would be to increase scholarships to cover living expenses in addition to tuition. This would promote social mobility. Ideally, it would be good to increase the number of full scholarships that universities offer. This would enable families who are unwilling to take out student loans to provide their children with university education, the researchers concluded.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, March 18, 2022