In order to support young people’s higher education decisions, the Department of Business Innovation and Skills together with the Sutton Trust commissioned UCAS to investigate the decision-making process of high achieving A-level students. Previous research has shown that even when students possess equivalent qualifications, socially and academically selective schools are likely to exhibit higher than average application and participation rates at leading universities. This study adds a further dimension to this body of research by exploring the application behaviours of equally capable higher education applicants at an individual level, considering the interaction of structural contexts and individual attributes before and during the decision-making process.
Surveying was used to gain a broad understanding of issues pertinent to high achieving students when making their HE decisions. Key attributes of the sample high achieving population were:
- The largest proportion of high achievers (47%) sent their applications to at least two or more of the most selective institutions.
- Proportionally, independent schools exhibited the highest application rate to the most selective HE (73%), followed by grammar schools (53%) and state schools 42%).
- Independent school students were almost twenty times more likely to make two or more applications to the most selective institutions over other institutions. Grammar school students were 5 times more likely, and state school students 3 times more likely, to make the majority of their applications to selective institutions over other institutions.
- High achievers applying to the most selective universities exhibited a tendency to base their decisions on social indications of prestige and academic excellence, and displayed a stronger sense of self-efficacy (belief in their own competence). In comparison to their peers who did not apply to the most selective HE, their decisions were strongly influenced by: league tables (65% ranked this as very influential in their decision-making compared to 32% of applicants to HE (excluding most selective)); academic reputation (86%: 62%); and the idea of challenging themselves (46%: 32%). For them, the importance of course and course content was more closely related to the institution at which they would be studying.
- High achievers who chose not to apply to the most selective universities showed a greater concern for the practicalities of attending university, such as: employment prospects upon graduation (74% ranked this as highly influential compared to 57% of applicants to the most selective institutions); cost of living (39% : 25%); and distance from home (46% : 28%). The importance of course and course content for them was founded in the usefulness of that qualification to enter the world of work.
- Determined-decided (“I’ll get the best I can”): High achieving applicant to the most selective institutions. Decision-makers who are confident, competitive, assertive and are inclined, by virtue of the home, social and institutional environments, to apply only to the most selective institutions.
- Determined-decisive (“I’ll get the best for me”): High achieving applicant to HE (excluding most selective). Decision-makers who are confident, competitive, assertive and make HE decisions based on course choice. Decisions tend to be informed, rational and highly independent, often going against conventions in their social and institutional context.
- Contingent (“I’ll get the best I think I can”): High achieving applicant to other institutions. Decision-makers who are less confident, less competitive, less assertive and whose HE decision is based on numerous factors. Decisions are often subject to a lack of self-efficacy, which can be attributed to a home, social or institutional environment that does not provide a model for attainment at the level of selective HE. Students who made a decision with a contingent mindset often tended to regret their HE decision on reflection, wishing instead that they had aimed higher rather than constraining their opportunities based on their perceived abilities and capabilities.
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