Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance

Are Degrees Worth Higher Fees? Perceptions of the Financial Benefits of Entering Higher Education

Politicians regularly cite an expected individual economic gain (the ‘graduate  premium’) as a justification for greater private contributions to the cost of higher  education, most recently as part of the rationale for the increase in England of the cap on Home/EU undergraduate fees to £9000 from 2012 (e.g. Willetts 2011a). However, the choices that potential students make about whether to apply to university, and if so where and what to study, are not influenced directly by the, necessarily impersonal, and highly contested (Thompson 2012), theoretical and often overly generalised estimates of the financial benefits for recent graduates over their careers (e.g. BIS
2011: 111-115). Rather, views that individual applicants hold about outcomes that they envisage personally can be expected to be significant; these are explored in this paper which is based on research conducted in seven secondary schools/colleges among Year 13 pupils taking courses that would make them eligible to apply for higher education. A questionnaire was followed by focus groups with applicants in five of the participating institutions.

The research found that there are high levels of uncertainty amongst potential applicants regarding the costs and possible financial benefits of studying for a degree. However, attitudes towards the concept of a graduate premium have a strong influence on the propensity of applying to higher education. The differences in the expected cost of studying at different institutions was not a predominant factor in participants’ choices about where to apply – this was partly because the difference in costs of studying at different institutions were seen as small and students did not expect to have precise information until they started at university or college.


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