Enhancing Equity By Understanding Complexity: Socioeconomic Status And The Career Aspirations Of Middle-Years School Students

Year: 2015

Author: Holmes, Kathryn, Gore, Jennifer, Albright, James, Southgate, Erica, Smith, Max

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Despite significant shifts in focus, Australian government agendas continue to espouse targets for greater equity, in general, and broadening participation in higher education in particular. Targets for greater participation in degree-level education have produced a flurry of university outreach activity focused on raising the aspirations of secondary school students, especially those from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. While most previous Australian studies have investigated students’ educational and career aspirations in the later years of high school, few studies have systematically examined their earlier formation in the middle years of schooling (schools Years 3-9). We report on our ARC Linkage project which is gathering data from students, teachers, and parents from diverse settings throughout NSW in order to investigate socioeconomic influences on the emerging aspirations of students in the middle years. A ‘composite capital construct’ juxtaposing the theories of Bourdieu (1986) and Becker and Tomes (1986) was used to theoretically frame the investigation. Drawing on data from a mixed-method longitudinal study of more than 6000 students in Years 3-12 in New South Wales public schools, we map the intersection of students’ career aspirations with SES and other demographic variables. Our analyses question two key assumptions about outreach activities: first, that students from low-SES backgrounds hold lower career aspirations; and second, that these activities appropriately target secondary school students, given that younger students’ aspirations are relatively under-developed. Our analyses demonstrate both the early solidification of students’ aspirations and the significant, but complex, impact of socioeconomic differences. This work contributes to the evidence base for academic, educational, and political work on access to higher education and the policies, practices, and outcomes that might ensue.