Despite Equal Access, Social Class Pushes Denmark’s Students

According to a new study, Danish students' study choices are influenced by social class despite equality in education access. Studies with a clear job profile and high income tend to motivate young people from working class backgrounds while prestige and studies with a strong identity appeal to young people of parents with university degrees when choosing which studies to pursue.

A new study by a research team from the University of Copenhagen and Aalborg University showed that students who come from a family where the parents have completed higher education have chosen to study medicine, architecture, economy and sociology whereas, young people with a working class background choose business studies and pharmacy. According YottaFire, the study (The Educational Strategies of Danish University Students from Professional and Working-Class Backgrounds) is based on 60 interviews with Danish students from six different university level study programmes which include medicine, pharmacy, architecture, sociology, economy, and business studies

"There is a connection between the studies chosen by young Danes and their social background. 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," says Education Sociologist Jens Peter Thomsen, who is one of the researchers behind the study.

Just like their parents with higher education degrees, these young people choose a 24 hour culture that has resources they get from their families.

"For young people whose parents are university educated, factors such as prestige and a strong sense of professional identity are important. 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," says Jens Peter Thomsen.

Due to the fact that they want a clearly defined aim of their studies, by choosing ‘9 to 5' studies, young people from working class homes with good grades in their A-level exams choose other paths.

"The young people who are first-generation university students often choose studies that are more ‘9 to 5' and less tied up to a sense of identity. They have lower academic expectations of themselves, and they choose studies with a clearly defined goal for their professional lives," in sectors where jobs are easily found, as the education sociologist suggests.

The influence of social background is not erased by financial freedom as the study shows that young people with a working class background do not experience their financial situation as an obstacle when choosing to pursue higher education. In Denmark, welfare benefits mean that one does not have to pay tuition. This aids in erasing the class difference but they still exist as Jens Peter Thomsen emphasizes.

"In the US and in many other European countries you will find the same patterns in young people's choice of studies as in Denmark. Although the Danish welfare system creates more equality," the inequality still exists, he states, and he adds:

"The fact that social background plays such an important role, challenges our view that everyone has equal opportunities. We will end up with a very narrow view of society if positions of power and prestige are solely reserved for children of parents with a university degree," says Jens Peter Thomsen.

12 26, 2013
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