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Aspirations, equity and higher education course choice: The path travelled

“Aspirations” have become a cornerstone of efforts to widen the participation of underrepresented groups in Australian higher education, with considerable practical and political attention given to “raising” aspirations over recent decades.

However, with very little longitudinal research on how students actually navigate their post-school futures, much of this activity has proceeded with limited understanding of the factors that enable or constrain the fulfilment of students’ aspirations post-school. New NCSEHE-funded research led by Dr Felicia Jaremus examined which students realise their childhood aspirations, for what higher education courses, and why.

Focusing on targeted equity groups and First-in-Family (FiF) students, the project drew on an existing data set documenting the post-school aspirations of students across a wide range of New South Wales (NSW) government schools.

Major findings from the project included:

  • Most participants’ educational and occupational aspirations changed at least somewhat in the years following their schooling.
  • Participants who pursued their aspirations with few disruptions were most likely to have taken a “path well-travelled” to a career that is aligned with their current demographic status.
  • Participants from targeted equity groups who “took the path less travelled” to university typically possessed strong motivation to improve their personal, community, or family situation, with some even framing university as a means to “escape”.
  • Course and institution choice were based on a mixture of early interest, affective factors, and practicalities.
  • University, regardless of the chosen course, is often marketed as the most acceptable and desirable pathway after school, with all other pathways held in lower esteem by schools and communities.
  • The most prevalent and disruptive obstacle for participants in meeting their aspirations was mental ill-health. A conglomeration of personal, relational, and economic challenges drove both acute and long-term episodes of mental ill-health. Such episodes were common in participants who were forced to abandon their pathway and begin a new journey.
  • Almost all participants indicated that the career education they received at school was insufficient to prepare them for life post-school.

The study drew 18 recommendations from participant insights, including recommendations for schools, higher education providers and government organisations.

Key recommendations include:

  • Take a broader approach to information provided regarding post-school pathways beyond direct entry, including ensuring students who aspire to non-university pathways are not forgotten.
  • Utilise students’ lived experience to showcase a variety of pathways to university and experiences of university life.
  • Provide greater support for students from equity cohorts, including financial assistance, accommodation, mentoring and targeted enrolment places.
  • Provide additional funding for career education in schools, and a non-partisan body to evaluate and determine future needs within a labour market dominated by perpetual uncertainty.

Read the full report, Aspirations, equity and higher education course choice: The path travelled 

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

Posted 5 April 2022 Posted in First in Family, General