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Career construction, future work and the perceived risks of going to university for young people from low SES backgrounds

NCSEHE Research Fellowship final report
Career choice Higher education Disadvantaged students Low socioeconomic status Student equity Universities Australia

In an era of increasing vocational uncertainty, navigating careers pathways is daunting, and this is amplified for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This report examines the relationships between perceived risk and university participation for low socioeconomic status (SES) students.

Perceived risks have been largely overlooked in the widening participation (WP) literature, yet are endemic in the decision to go to university.

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 may better help low SES students make informed decisions.

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.

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.

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