Information barriers and social stratification in higher education: evidence from a field experiment
British Journal of Sociology
GB : Wiley-Blackwell
online - p.
higher education, social inequalities, educational trajectories, educational counseling
Our contribution assesses the role of information barriers for patterns of participation in Higher Education (HE) and the related social inequalities. For this purpose, we developed a large-scale clustered randomised experiment involving over 9,000 high school seniors from 62 Italian schools. We designed a counseling intervention to correct student misperceptions of the profitability of HE, that is, the costs, economic returns and chances of success of investments in different tertiary programs. We employed a longitudinal survey to test whether treated students' educational trajectories evolved differently relative to a control group. We find that, overall, treated students enrolled less often in less remunerative fields of study in favour of postsecondary vocational programmes. Most importantly, this effect varied substantially by parental social class and level of education. The shift towards vocational programmes was mainly due to the offspring of low-educated parents; in contrast, children of tertiary graduates increased their participation in more rewarding university fields. Similarly, the redistribution from weak fields to vocational programmes mainly involved the children of the petty bourgeoisie and the working class, while upper class students invested in more rewarding university fields. We argue that the status-maintenance model proposed by Breen and Goldthorpe can explain these socially differentiated treatment effects. Overall, our results challenge the claim that student misperceptions contribute to horizontal inequalities in access to HE.