Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Student Awareness of Costs and Benefits of Educational Decisions: Effects of an Information Campaign

a paper (CEE DP 139) by Martin McGuigan (Queen’s Management School, Belfast), Sandra McNally (University of Surrey, London School of Economics and Centre for the Economics of Education) and Gill Wyness (Centre for the Economics of Education and CentreForum) published by Centre for the Economics of Education (August 2012)

Executive Summary

The economic benefits of staying on in education have been well established.

But do students know this? One of the reasons why students might drop out of education too soon is because they are not well informed about the costs and benefits of staying on in education at an appropriate time of their educational career. Indeed, the fact that university fees have trebled in recent times (in England) have led to fears that many young people may be put off from participating in further and higher education – especially those from low income backgrounds. This could exacerbate inequalities that are already very stark.

In this paper, we investigate students’ knowledge and their receptiveness to information campaigns about the costs and benefits of staying on in education. We design an “information campaign” that provides some simple facts about economic and financial aspects of educational decisions and test students’ response to this campaign. The fieldwork for our information campaign mainly took place over the first two terms of 2010-2011 - the period in which the trebling of university fees was announced (amid much controversy). This provided us with an opportunity to measure students’ receptiveness to the surrounding publicity in the media.

The material for our information campaign consists of a (password protected) website, materials that can be used by the teacher (a video and presentation) and a one page flyer that can be handed out to students. The materials used in the research are now publicly available at

All secondary schools in London were invited to take part in our study. Over 12,000 pupils from 54 schools took part in the main evaluation which took place over the school year 2010-2011. Within each school, all Year 10 students (i.e. 14/15-year-olds) completed a 40-minute survey (under exam conditions). They were then given a very similar survey to complete 8-12 weeks later. In between the two periods, some schools were given information materials whereas other schools were given the materials some time later (after their students had completed the second survey). Schools were randomly assigned into two groups – with “treatment” schools getting the materials between the two surveys and “control schools” getting the materials some time later. The purpose was to test whether students in treatment schools showed any change in knowledge and aspirations 8-12 weeks later compared to students in the control schools. We also looked at the relationship between the number of media reports on tuition fees (on the BBC website) and students’ knowledge and aspirations at the time of each survey. One crucial difference between our information campaign and the media reporting is that the latter emphasised the huge rise in university fees, without always giving emphasis to the favourable terms of loans and the availability of grants.

We chose Year 10 because these students do their GCSE exams one year later (Year 11), as well as make important decisions on what to do subsequently. The participating schools were above average in terms of GCSE performance and were relatively less deprived (in terms of percentage of students eligible to receive free school meals). The results indicate that students in participating schools have significant gaps in their basic knowledge about the costs and benefits of staying in education and going to university. However, the information experiment and media reporting worked in the same direction for knowledge of when fees are paid, increasing the probability of correctly understanding the basics of when fees are paid by 5.8 and 9 percentage points respectively (from a baseline of 46% of students, who knew the right answer in the first survey). Moreover, our information experiment increased the probability of agreeing that “student loans are a cheaper/better way to borrow money than other types of borrowing” by 7.6 percentage points (from a baseline of 48.6%) while media reporting had no effect.

For the perceived importance of financial constraints on staying in education, the information experiment and media reporting had opposite effects. Our information campaign led students to think that staying in education would be affordable (loan conditions and grants were carefully explained) whereas media reporting led students to think that going to university would be “too expensive”. For example, the proportion of students put off by financial aspects of university fell by 5 percentage points.

Media reporting, on the other hand, increased the negative perceptions of affordability in all cases, with, for example, the proportion of students put off by financial aspects of university increasing by 6.5 percentage points. This is a sizeable impact when put alongside the baseline levels of agreement of 25.7%.

On knowledge about the benefits of staying in education, media reporting had no effect that is statistically different from zero. But the information experiment increased the probability that students perceive that they have a better chance of getting a job if they stay in education to the age of 18 or if they go to university. At the same time, the information experiment reduced the probability of agreeing with (incorrect) statements about choice of subject and university.

Finally, the information experiment had an impact on whether students plan to stay in education - but no impact on university intentions. But the effect of media reporting was to reduce the probability of stating &ldquoit is very likely I will ever apply to university to do a degree” by four percentage points.

Our results indicate that media reporting and a fairly ‘light-touch’ information campaign have quite sizeable effects on student attitudes – at least in the short-term. Of course, this does not necessarily translate into behaviour. But there is certainly a strong correlation between students’ attitudes and their subsequent behaviour (as we show using the Longitudinal Survey of Young People in England). If there is a chain of causation between student beliefs about the affordability of higher education and how hard they work to ensure they can access opportunities, then informing students properly might also be a way of improving performance at GCSE.

All the indications are that the hike in fees in late 2010 (and specifically, media reporting of the changes) increased the perception of going to university as ‘too expensive’. This perception was significantly higher in comprehensive schools (compared with independent and selective state schools) and among children eligible for free school meals. If these perceptions influence effort at school or behaviour post-16, this will increase socio-economic inequality in the future.

On the positive side, a fairly light-touch information campaign in schools can reverse some of these negative effects. It can give a more rounded view of the reforms – stressing the availability of grants and how loans can be repaid – rather than focusing on the increase in fees per se. An information campaign like the one used in this project can be effective at a low cost. However, we should not assume that information gets conveyed in the right way – or at all – to students. Policy attention should focus on the incentives that schools have to invest time and effort in providing careers information (which is not regulated and does not influence ‘league tables’) as well as available resources to ensure that information is conveyed in an appropriate way.

Full text (PDF 57pp)

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