A Multination Study of Socioeconomic Inequality in Expectations for Progression to Higher Education: The Role of Between-School Tracking and Ability Stratification (Australian Catholica University, University College London)

Philip D. Parker, John Jerrim, Ingrid Schoon, Herbert W. Marsh


In recent decades there have been significant declines in inequality of expectations and attainment for tertiary education by gender and ethnicity. But large differences in educational expectations and attainment by socioeconomic status have remained.

Educational expectations are the most important predictor of attainment, but the authors raise concerns that expectations are detached from reality. Importantly, the gap between expectations and actual attainment differs both by country and is larger for those who are poorer.

Educational expectations are an important topic of study as they impact on students’ subsequent development. Research shows that expectations are the single most important predictor of the choices that people will make when given the opportunity. Expectations are also important outcomes in their own right, with links to well-being and identity. Expectations also differ by social background, even after controlling for academic ability. They thus provide critical insights into the processes by which differentiation in educational outcomes occur.

This study aims to examine the association between differences in ability and curricular stratification and children’s expectations of obtaining a university degree. This research focuses on expectations of a university level of education because there is an increasing requirement to have a university education for jobs that previously did not require one. These increases in the employability of graduates has largely come at the cost of those who do not go to university. Although educational expectations do not perfectly predict later educational and occupational attainment, they are nevertheless very strongly associated with such later lifetime outcomes.

Students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have lower levels of educational achievement (on average) than their higher socioeconomic status peers. Young people from less privileged backgrounds tend to choose less ambitious educational pathways than their more advantaged peers even when they were equally able.

The data in this study are drawn from the 2003 round of Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). In each country, a minimum of 150 schools were included in the sample, selected with probability proportional to size. Thirty students were then randomly selected from within each school.

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