College or not?

Why timely information makes a huge difference
B_Me, pixabay.com, Pixabay License
B_Me, pixabay.com, Pixabay License

When students participate in an information workshop, they are more likely to enroll in college – and social inequality in higher education declines.

A college education has many benefits, both in and beyond the labor market. But young people from socioeconomically disadvantaged families are less likely to pursue higher education and more likely to forgo its benefits. Society, too, may miss out on additional educational potential.

After years of expansion in the higher education sector, Germany, one of the richest OECD countries, has seen an increase in the share of students entering college– almost reaching the OECD average of 60 percent. Yet when it comes to social mobility, Germany tends to rank closer to the bottom. According to the most recent report on education in Germany, published in 2018, only 62 percent of qualified students whose parents had completed no more than vocational training enrolled in college. Among those with at least one parent who had graduated from college, 81 percent did so.

It should be noted that young people in Germany who have earned the higher education entrance certificate already represent a select group, since they have gone through the highly selective process in which elementary school students are assigned to different types of schools.

Might a lack of information be one reason for social inequality in educational decisions in Germany?

Since students are not required to pay tuition fees, direct costs of higher education are relatively low, and means-tested government funding is available to help cover living expenses. Given the relatively low costs, why is there so much inequality in the likelihood of enrolling in college? A lack of information may be one explanation. Several studies have shown that high school students overestimate the costs of college and underestimate its benefits.

Yet these costs and benefits are important – though not the only – determinants of educational choices. According to a recent survey the German Centre for Higher Education Research and Science Studies (DZHW), a quarter of all college-eligible students in Germany see the costs of college as a problem; this is true particularly of those whose parents did not graduate from college. Since the actual costs are relatively low, it seems plausible that a lack of information – or inaccurate information – plays a significant role in students’ perceptions.

Information asymmetries, therefore, may be one reason why students from different socioeconomic backgrounds make different decisions about attending college. Students from families that lack experience with higher education are less likely to gain helpful information through private channels. Their social networks generally lack the ability to help them navigate through the complex decision-making process.

“Students from families that lack experience with higher education are less likely to gain helpful information through private channels.”

Although information deficits are an issue for all social groups, young people who come from socioeconomically privileged families are less likely to be discouraged, despite any potential misperceptions. With access to more resources, they are not as deterred by perceived (and to some extent nonexistent) obstacles.

Furthermore, people perceive the negative consequences of falling back as more significant than the positive effects of moving up, as psychological and sociological studies have shown. Children from more highly educated families (and their parents) take a very negative view of failure to attend college, since this is associated with the risk of losing social status. In contrast, young people from less educated families are more likely to be able to attain their parents’ status without earning a college degree. For them, therefore, a lack of information may result in the decision to forgo college.

Apart from status-related motives, economic studies have shown that behavioral barriers explain why students may not invest (enough) in education. For example, students who focus too much on the present tend to place higher value on results in the short-term. This leads them to underestimate the benefits of higher education, which do not become apparent until much later. These students often come from less educated families.

Might it be helpful to provide more decision-relevant information?

It is important to find out whether a lack of information is a factor in the transition to higher education, and whether additional information might encourage students to enroll in college. Surveys often ask respondents about their perceptions of costs and benefits, whether they feel well-informed, and the sources of information they rely on.

But it would be a mistake to conclude that a correlation between, for example, the sources of information students use and a greater likelihood of attending college reflects a causal connection. Both might be influenced by some other factors that affect their decisions about attending college. So, for example, if their motivation makes them more likely to seek information as well as more likely to enroll in college, the observed correlation between information and college attendance could be spurious.

Randomized studies can help us learn whether or not additional information encourages college enrollment and reduces inequality. A longitudinal study known as the Berliner- Studienberechtigten-Panel (Best Up) has made it possible for us to address this question for the first time in Germany. Best Up is a randomized controlled trial that I conducted in cooperation with my colleagues Heike Solga and Alessandra Rusconi of the WZB Berlin Social Science Center and Frauke Peter and C. Katharina Spiess of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin).

“The workshop has a particularly strong impact on students whose parents have not graduated from college.”

We followed students at 27 high schools in Berlin from about one year before their high school graduation until about two years after graduation, asking them several times about their intended and actual post-secondary educational choices. After the first survey, about a year before high school graduation, some randomly selected schools were offered an information workshop. This workshop consisted of a 20-minute in-class presentation, where students received information about the benefits and costs of college and vocational training as well as about financing options.

To ensure that all participants received the same information, we summarized it in a three-minute video shown at the end of the workshop. Random assignment eliminated the possibility that workshop participation was associated with other school-related or individual factors, such as motivation, and enabled us to determine the causal impact of providing information on college application and enrollment.

It did indeed have a positive effect: On average, students from schools that held an information workshop perceive themselves to be, and actually are, better informed about the benefits of a college education and financing options than those from schools without such a workshop. They are also more likely to apply for admission to and enroll in college. In addition, the workshop has a particularly strong impact on students whose parents have not graduated from college already intended to attend college.

“Information workshops for high school students appear to be a low-cost way of reinforcing students’ college plans and reducing the level of social inequality in college enrollment.”

We are able to conclude that providing information can, in fact, reduce inequality in educational choices. It encourages students intending to attend college to follow through and actually enroll. In other words, information is most helpful in preventing students from socially disadvantaged families from abandoning their college plans. However, it often does not change the plans of students who do not intend to attend college.

Information workshops for high school students appear to be a low-cost way of reinforcing students’ college plans and reducing the level of social inequality in college enrollment – thus also taking better advantage of the educational potential of these young people.

It remains an open question whether providing information earlier or targeting parents as well might reduce inequality in college enrollment even more. As evidence suggests, early interventions are more effective than later ones. But the results from the Best Up study suggest that even if an intervention takes place about one year prior to high school graduation, this is not too late to reduce social inequality in higher education.

Co-author of this blog post: Frauke Peter

Best Up received financial support from the Einstein Foundation (grant number A-2010-025 (FU)). Also participating in the project: Martin Ehlert, Cindy Fitzner, Mathias Hübener, Johanna Storck and Vaishali Zambre.

 

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