Social values and the aspirations of the young

How does where you live influence what you seek to study? New research, to be presented at the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society on Wednesday 13 April, investigates how residential neighbourhoods influence educational decisions, and in particular the choice of a university degree. Using the case of Spain, it casts new light on how local social values can influence aspiration and degree choices.

Young people’s socioeconomic status, inherited from their parents, will influence the educational, economic, and informational opportunities that they face when making major life decisions. Aspirations for a particular future lifestyle may be strongly moulded by such inherited constraints, and the social environment.

The study examines in detail how neighbourhoods influence the choices of people with low socioeconomic status (SES). It asks whether poor people living in neighbourhoods where people exhibit status-seeking attitudes are more likely to seek status-conferring careers than poor people in relatively less status-seeking neighbourhoods.

In the past, researchers have argued that the poor often lack many experiences in their direct networks of reference, which lowers their capacity to aspire. This generates a vicious circle in which the poor do not aspire and – because they do not aspire – remain poor, creating a poverty-aspiration trap.

Could aspirational contexts, such as neighbourhoods where status is valued and extolled, encourage young low socioeconomic status (SES) people to be more ambitious in their aspirations? The study finds that the answer is yes.

How is the analysis carried out?

The researcher analysed the application records of five cohorts of college students entering two large public universities in the Spanish region of Valencia from 2013 to 2018. This comprises more than 51,000 students, choosing from 120 college degrees, and coming from nearly 200 districts (postal codes) in the region. Together, these two universities receive 85% of the region's university students.

Out of the 120 degrees, the researcher defines as “status-conferring” degrees those which lead to socially prestigious and/or high-earning professions. Such a classification is made on the basis of available information from the National Sociological Survey (CIS) in Spain and from the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.

To indicate status-seeking in a neighbourhood, the researcher uses the political orientation of the residents: the share of conservative votes cast in the Spanish 2016 national elections across postal codes in the region. This idea is based on existing references in political science (such as Thal 2020) and other disciplines that point to a strong association between citizens’ desire for social status and their level of conservatism.

This hypothesis can be checked using citizens’ answers to a sociological opinion survey conducted by the regional government. Residents in conservative neighbourhoods are significantly more likely to rank social status as one factor contributing to ‘happiness in life’. They are also more likely to attach great importance to factors such as social prestige, high income, and family tradition in their career choices. These results come out after isolating the effects of income and education of respondents.

The results show that a 10% increase in the degree of conservatism of a neighbourhood is associated with a 4.6% increase in the likelihood that its 17/18 year-old students will choose socially prestigious careers. Students from low SES backgrounds – those in the lowest 10th decile of the SES distribution – are around 8% less likely to choose prestigious careers and 5% less likely to choose high-earning careers than their median-SES neighbours with the same academic ability (the same university entrance score).

However, and constituting the main finding of the study, if students from low SES backgrounds were to move to a median conservative neighbourhood, they would be as likely as their original median SES neighbours to choose prestigious and high-earning careers. These results are more pronounced, the greater the SES disparities within a neighbourhood.

One implication of the study is that preventing segregation in the environments where young students grow up, such as schools, could help to counterbalance initial disadvantage. Such measures can expand the set of experiences, information, and points of reference that people from a low SES background may otherwise lack.

Author and Contact:

Professor Pilar Beneito

Associate Professor of Economics at Universitat de València and ERICES, Spain.




Tweet to @BeneitoPilar

Notes to Editors:

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