Student Debts Push Disadvantaged Graduates Towards Lower-Status Jobs

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Debt and financial pressure

Students from low-income families are paying more for higher education because they incur heavier debts and receive less help with repayments once they graduate. Financial pressures also mean they are more likely to take jobs that do not require a degree when they leave university, according to research by the University of Glasgow for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The last in a series of reports charting the progress through higher education of young people from disadvantaged areas of western Scotland shows that without significant financial support from families they often felt compelled to take the first job that came along. This, in turn, made it harder to launch a graduate career or gain skills that would help them move to jobs where they would be better able to repay their debts.

The study, based on a survey of more than 250 young people, found that their progress from college and university into the labour market had tended to be slow. A year after they graduated, just over four in ten had entered graduate-status occupation, with only one in five employed in a relatively secure graduate position. In addition:

  • Those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds faced the greatest difficulties in the labour market, especially women graduates. In spite of having completed a course of higher education, their job expectations were still relatively low.

  • Although relatively few directly blamed their difficulties on class or gender, a substantial minority thought they were being held back by their accent or the area where they lived.

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  • Graduates from low-income backgrounds were less likely to have developed clear plans for their future, gained in confidence or extended their social networks in ways that could help them find degree-level employment.

The researchers, nevertheless, emphasise that many of the young people who took part in the study had made impressive progress in difficult circumstances since they were first interviewed at the end of their school careers five years earlier.

Prof. Andy Furlong, co-author of the study, said: "The routes these less advantaged students took through higher education were often complex and involved failures, breaks and new starts. Debt was their constant companion and they often supported themselves through college by working long hours away from their studies. In addition, their relations with more affluent students were sometimes less than cordial.

The progress they were making towards obtaining graduate-level jobs was slow, but it is important to emphasise that progress was being made. We cannot accurately assess how many of those we interviewed will move into secure graduate careers, but our best guess is that it will eventually be more than half."

Fred Cartmel, co-author of the report, added: "The early employment experiences of graduates from disadvantaged backgrounds were harmed by the heavier level of debts they had incurred compared with other students. But that does not negate the benefits of giving young people greater access to higher education. The lesson for policy makers is that their support for wider access needs to be matched with fairer funding arrangements."

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