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The socioeconomic gap in university dropouts

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In many countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., there is ongoing concern about the extent to which young people from lower-income backgrounds can acquire a university degree. Recent evidence from the U.K. suggests that for a given level of prior achievement in secondary school a disadvantaged student has as much chance of enrolling in a university as a more advantaged student. However, simply participating in higher education is not sufficient—graduation is important. Therefore, this paper investigates whether students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds have a higher rate of university dropout when compared to their wealthier counterparts, allowing for their differential prior achievement. Using a combination of school and university administrative data sets, we show that there is indeed a sizeable and statistically significant gap in the rate of withdrawal after the first year of university between advantaged and disadvantaged English students. This socioeconomic gap in university dropouts remains even after allowing for their personal characteristics, prior achievement in secondary school and university characteristics. In the English context, at least, this implies that retention in university of disadvantaged students is arguably a more important policy issue than barriers to entry for these students.

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