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Study sheds light on how ethnicity, schooling and family background influence university success

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Study sheds light on how ethnicity, schooling and family background influence university success

Researchers from Warwick Economics have shed new light on how ethnicity, schooling and family background influence the likelihood of being awarded a first-class degree at university.

Previous literature has established that, on average, students who attend private schools are less likely to be awarded a first-class degree than their peers from state schools who achieve the same grades at A-Level. However, a new study has revealed that the link between degree class and the type of school attended differs by student ethnicity.

The researchers analysed data from a population of 12,815 UK undergraduate students graduating from one university across the academic years 2013/14 to 2018/19.

Among White students, they found that those who are privately educated are six percentage points less likely to be awarded a first-class degree than those from state schools. But the link is reversed among Black students and students of mixed ethnicity: those from private schools are six percentage points more likely to be awarded a first than those who attend state schools.

On average, the study did not reveal a significant link between degree class and schooling among Asian students. However, the link was strong for Asian students from poorer family backgrounds: those who are state-educated are substantially more likely to be awarded a first than their privately educated counterparts.

The negative association found in literature to date between private schooling and degree class is commonly explained by the hypothesis that state school students who have achieved the same prior qualifications as their peers from better-resourced private schools have greater untapped academic potential.

The researchers note that their findings indicate this gap in potential may be greater among Asian students from poorer family backgrounds than among White students. However, they emphasise that further research is needed to explore the mechanisms underlying the associations revealed in the study.

Highlighting implications of the study, Professor Robin Naylor said: “Originating in a paper co-authored with Jeremy Smith and published in the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics in 2001, the now well-established finding linking state schooling with increased likelihood of achieving a first-class degree has provided an evidence base for the use of contextualised offer criteria, which are used across the higher education sector to reduce grade requirements for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

“Our research demonstrates how differences in ethnicity, schooling and family background intersect in their relationships with degree classification to create a much more detailed and nuanced picture. When looking at Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) students overall, we found that those who are privately educated are two percentage points more likely to be awarded a first. However, using the overarching BAME category disguises significant differences between students of different ethnicities.”

“The findings indicate, for example, that contextualised admissions policies may be particularly beneficial for state-educated Asian students from less-advantaged backgrounds.”

Read the full article: Awarding gaps in higher education by ethnicity, schooling and family by Gianna Boero, Brian Karanja, Robin Naylor and Tammy Thiele was published in May 2022 in the Warwick Economics Research Papers series.