Maria Raciti — Research Fellowship report: Managing perceived risks supports university participation for disadvantaged students
People from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds may choose not to attend university based on their assessment of perceived risks, rather than a lack of aspiration or ability, new research has shown.
In an era of increasing vocational uncertainty, navigating careers pathways is daunting, and this is amplified for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. A report by 2018 NCSEHE Research Fellow Associate Professor Maria Raciti (University of the Sunshine Coast) has examined the relationships between perceived risk and university participation for low SES students.
“Perceived risks have been largely overlooked in the widening participation (WP) literature, yet are endemic in the decision to go to university,” Associate Professor Raciti said.
The research identified 10 types of risk that people from low SES backgrounds perceived as being associated with the decision to go (or not to go) to university.
These included financial risks; social and psychological risks; and risks impacting career advancement (for example, forgoing alternative opportunities and committing extended periods of time to a degree with no guarantee of employment).
“Through understanding the different ways students express these perceived risks, schools can better help low SES students make informed decisions,” Associate Professor Raciti said.
“Responsive online resources could promote self-awareness and help identify and address the concerns of students as well as their parents. Parents could also benefit from engagement in university-led WP activities and being given tools to support their children.”
The study found low SES high school students responded in three different ways to the dilemma of whether or not to go to university.
“When faced with uncertainty, students may shortcut the decision-making process; postpone or avoid making a decision; or engage in ‘satisficing’, where trade-offs are made to arrive at a ‘good enough’ solution,” Associate Professor Raciti said.
“Risk tolerance was identified as a characteristic influencing students’ responses to decision dilemmas. People vary in terms of how they approach risk. Some students from low SES backgrounds are risk averse, some are risk neutral and others are risk seekers.”
A University participation decision-making model compared the influence of perceived risks on students from low SES backgrounds with those from other SES backgrounds and identified specific areas for WP interventions.
NCSEHE Director Professor Sue Trinidad said making the appropriate choices in regards to education and careers can be problematic, particularly for low SES students whose resources may not accommodate contingency plans.
“Higher education can be transformative in its capacity to enable social and economic mobility,” Professor Trinidad said. “Identifying and addressing their risk perceptions will better position disadvantaged students to make measured decisions in this respect.”