Stability of Field of Study Choices of High School Graduates in Germany. the Role of Social Origin.

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
TW2.1.01 (Tower Two)
Alessandra Rusconi, WZB Berlin Social Science Center, Berlin, Germany
First-generation students, i.e. students whose parents do not have a tertiary degree, are underrepresented in German universities, although nowadays many young adults from a non-academic background leave school with a higher education entrance qualification (“Abitur”). Moreover, social origin influences not only young adults’ likelihood to enroll into university after high school, but also their choice of field of study (Lörz 2012). Children of university graduates often choose prestigious fields of study such as medicine and law to reproduce their social status and to set themselves apart from the growing number of students (Reimer / Pollak 2010). In contrast, children from non-academic families often choose fields of study such as engineering or social sciences that have minimal direct costs (length of study, required materials, etc.) and social costs (cultural distance from their parents) (Becker et al. 2010).

Previous research, however, is often based on cross-sectional data and focuses either on future educational plans and aspirations of high school pupils or retrospectively on whether students from different social origin enroll into different fields of study. Both approaches cannot take into account changes in young adults’ education plans during the transition out of school. Yet, research on young adults’ educational aspirations shows that as the time for a decision for or against university enrollment nears disproportionately more children from non-academic families “cool out” and do not realize their original aspirations (Hanson 1994).

Little is known also about the importance of information on labor market outcomes for different fields of study, its influence for the choice of fields of study in general, and for different social groups of origin in particular. This is the more surprising as a central theoretical approach to explain the ‘secondary effects’ (Boudon 1974) of social origins for educational choices directly refers to costs-benefits calculations and assume that the expected costs and benefits of education influence the decision (e.g. Breen / Goldthorpe 1997). While economic approaches characterize this as individual investment, sociological approaches highlight the role of class attainment (i.e. secure a class position at least as good as that of their parents). Following the latter approach, even at the same expected cost level, children of university graduates will expect higher benefits from university than children from a non-academic background, as the latter can achieve the status of their parents simply with a good vocational training. Yet, both approaches assume that children of different social origin will assess the costs and benefits of university enrollment differently because they have a different degree of information regarding the costs of tertiary education, labor market opportunities and long-term earning potential of university graduates.

Data and Research Design
This paper will used data of the DIW WZB-project “Best Up”, a longitudinal (panel) intervention study of about 1000 high school pupils (academic track) at 27 schools in Berlin. The first (classroom) survey was conducted in spring 2013, about a year before high school graduation. At the end of the first survey, pupils from eight randomly selected schools attended an information workshop on costs and benefits of tertiary education, including information on the average income at different life stages and in different fields of study, funding opportunities, etc. The same pupils were surveyed again (individual online questionnaire) about nine months before graduation (late summer 2013) and in late summer 2014 (after the final high school exams and after the deadline for university applications). A fourth survey will be carried out in spring 2015 and the fifth and last survey in early 2016 - about six month and one and half years after high school graduation.

Focusing on the subsample of pupils who in the 1st wave (one year before high school graduation) planned to enroll in tertiary education, this paper analyzes stability and changes in the “realistic” educational plans and in particular in the fields of study from the 1st to the 3rd wave. As indicator for field-specific labor market incomes we match the average incomes of graduates in different fields of study (on the basis of the micro census data, Glocker / Storck 2014). The dependent variable is categorical (remain by their study field or change to higher / lower yielding study field or to vocational training).

Central questions are: Does a “cooling out” take place during the transition out of high school and as the decision for or against university get closer, and does this “cooling out” disproportionally concern children from a non-academic background? Does this “cooling out” modify only young adults’ plans to enroll into university (vs. vocational training or no further education) or also their choices of field of study? Can an intervention aimed at reducing the informational gap between young adults of different social origin moderate this “cooling out” and reduce the impact of social origin on educational plans? And does it simply encourage young adults to remain by their original plans or also encourage them to choose higher yielding fields of study?


Becker, R., Haunberger, S. & Schubert, F. (2010). Studienfachwahl als Spezialfall der Ausbildungsentscheidung und Berufswahl. Zeitschrift für ArbeitsmarktForschung 42: 292-310.

Boudon, R. (1974). Education, Opportunity and Social Inequality. New York:Wiley.

Breen, R. & Goldthorpe, J.H. (1997). Explaining Educational Differentials:Towards a Formal Rational Action Theory. Rationality and Society 9(3): 275-305.

Glockner, D. & Storck, J. (2014). Risks and Returns to Educational Fields – A Financial Asset Approach to Vocational and Academic Education. Economics of Education Review 42: 109-129.

Hanson, S. (1994). Lost talent: Unrealized Educational Aspirations and Expectations among U.S. Youths. Sociology of Education 67(3): 159-183.

Lörz, M. (2012): Mechanismen sozialer Ungleichheit beim Übergang ins Studium: Prozesse der Status und Kulturreproduktion. In: R. Becker und H. Solga (Hrsg.), Soziologische Bildungsforschung,  Sonderband 52 der Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie. Wiesbaden, S. 302-324.

 Reimer, D. & Pollak, R. (2010). Educational Expansion and Its Consequences for Vertical and Horizontal Inequalities in Access to Higher Education in West Germany. European Sociological Review, 26(4): 415–430.