The new majority or an overlooked majority? A profile of prospective first in family students

Year: 2016

Author: Patfield, Sally, Gore, Jennifer, Fray, Leanne, Lloyd, Adam

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

First in family students, those with no parental experience of higher education, have been described in the international literature as ‘the new majority’ (Jehangir, 2010); although many of these students may have been historically excluded from university, they now constitute a large proportion of enrolments. Yet research from the United States has also highlighted that first in family students often delay entry into higher education, and once they are enrolled, have a high rate of attrition (Ishitani, 2006). Moreover, while extensive attention has been paid to this ‘group’ of students within the United States, there is a dearth of empirical research specifically focusing on first in family students within Australia, with studies often concentrating on the six equity target groups identified as part of the widening participation agenda. Within this context, this study draws on survey data collected from 3,728 high school students from New South Wales public schools to investigate the aspirations of prospective first in family students – those who are yet to enter university. Framed through the lens of Appadurai’s (2004) theorisation of ‘the capacity to aspire’, a profile of these prospective first in family students is presented. We find that in comparison to those students with parental experience of higher education, prospective first in family students are significantly less likely to aspire to university. They are also more likely to come from a rural location, and attend a less advantaged school. Interestingly, there are no significant differences in perceived travel or financial barriers for university between the two groups, however prospective first in family students possess lower levels of the cultural and social capital that would be considered valuable in relation to the field of higher education – or what Appadurai would call ‘less archives of experience’. These results question the continued reliance on the six ‘equity target groups’ within the widening participation agenda. Arguably, these equity categorisations overlook a key factor in the capacity to aspire to university.Appadurai, A. (2004). The capacity to aspire: Culture and the terms of recognition. In Y. Rao & M. Walton (Eds.), Culture and public action (pp. 59-84). Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.Ishitani, T. (2006). Studying attrition and degree completion behaviour among first generation college students in the United States. Journal of Higher Education, 77, 861–885. doi:10.1353/jhe.2006.0042 Jehangir, R. R. (2010). Higher education and first-generation students: Cultivating community, voice, and place for the new majority. Retrieved from