Educational aspirations of Australian school students from low-SES backgrounds: Social capital and the capacity to aspire to higher education

Year: 2017

Author: Fray, Leanne

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Despite government adoption of the widening participation agenda in Australia, students from low-SES backgrounds continue to be underrepresented in higher education. Many low-SES students believe that university is not a viable consideration (Parliament of Victoria, 2009), while others argue that many low-SES students do hold aspirations for university, but these aspirations are mitigated by actual or perceived constraints (Gale et al, 2013). Much of this research treats students from low-SES backgrounds as a homogeneous group and few studies account for variability within the category.
Recognising differences among students from low-SES backgrounds, this paper brings new insight to ameliorating the under-representation of this equity target group in higher education. Drawing on survey data collected from 6492 students and focus groups with 553 students, we utilise Bourdieu's concepts of social and cultural capital (Bourdieu, 1986) and Appadurai's (2004) theory of the 'capacity to aspire' to investigate student aspirations for higher education. Logistic regression analysis examining who among students from low-SES backgrounds aspired to university found that aspirants were more likely to be female, with high prior achievement, higher self-perception of their academic ability, to attend more advantaged schools, and have high levels of cultural capital.
Next, we report on key differences among students from low-SES backgrounds (n = 1900) by comparing students with low occupational aspirations (n = 287) to those with high occupational aspirations (n = 1030). High aspiring students were typically from the most advantaged schools, were in the highest prior achievement quartile, and aspired to attend university. Low-aspiring students were in the lowest prior achievement and cultural capital quartiles, from the least advantaged schools, and did not aspire to a university education. Analysis of focus group data indicated that access to social capital was a key indicator of interest in and aspirations for higher education and enhanced a student's capacity to aspire to higher education.
We argue that targeted equity initiatives should take account of the differences among students from low-SES backgrounds and reach beyond the classroom to include improved access to information for students and their parents/carers.