Survey: Social Class Plays the Biggest Role in College Selection

Even in countries where access to educational opportunities are equal, how students take advantage of those opportunities depends strongly on the social class to which their families belong. Based on research from University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University, children from families of a middle-class background naturally gravitate to programs that promise high salaries and stability post-graduation, while children from high income families take the program’s prestige into account before anything else.

Danish university students were polled about their educational decisions and asked to outline the decision tree they followed prior to selecting their schools. According to Janice Wood, the Associate News Editor of PsychCentral, students from 6 universities and several majors – including pharmacy, business, economy, sociology, and architecture – described the processes they used to determine which school they should enroll in and what major would be the best one for them.

After examining the data, education sociologist Dr. Jens Peter Thomsen said that there exists a link between the answers the students gave, as well as the choices they made, and their social class. He noted that this was especially true in high-performers – students who had high school grades and high college admissions exams – who could go pretty much anywhere.

“There is a connection between the studies chosen by young Danes and their social background,” said education sociologist Dr. Jens Peter Thomsen. “Even for the young people who have very good grades in their A-level exams, and who could successfully seek admission to a large variety of studies, the parents’ level of education and social class play an important role in their choice.”

The students bring with them the resources they get from their families, he noted.

For example, he said, if you grow up in a home with parents who are doctors or architects with a strong professional identity, it is an obvious choice to follow the same path as your parents when you grow up.
“For young people whose parents are university educated, factors such as prestige and a strong sense of professional identity are important,” he said.

“They are attracted by an educational culture in which you are a student 24/7, and where leisure activities are tied to the identity that lies within your studies. These young people have also grown up with topical discussions around the dinner table, which also prepares them for their lives as students.”

Thomsen believes that students who come from middle-class families choose to go into less “prestigious” careers because they want to choose a major that will provide the easiest path from the classroom to a well-compensated job. That is why middle-class students typically pick programs in the STEM field, where landing a job after graduation is relatively straightforward.