Do students have the information they need to make the right choice?

By Marie-Hélène Doumet

Senior Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills

One of the first critical decisions most young adults have to make in their lives is what to do when they finish school. Some will start work while others will consider furthering their education. Whatever their decision, the thought process is complex and many considerations come into play. For those deciding to pursue a higher education degree, the typical questions they might ask include the type of university, what to study, how to get in, and whether to travel abroad.

Our latest Education Indicators in Focus brief investigates the different factors students may weigh up when making decisions about entering higher education. These factors are all interconnected. Take tuition fees, for example, which can vary significantly between and within countries. While tuition for a bachelor degree is free for national students in about a third of OECD countries with data, students pay between USD 3 000 and over USD 9 000 per year in others. As fees rise, students are more likely to demand a marketable degree that provides them with a solid return on their investment or more value for their money. This can translate into various attitudes that affect enrolment. Students may hold off entry until they are admitted to the programme or institution that will secure solid employment opportunities, or they may instead choose to look abroad and combine study with an international experience for a similar cost. Bring in other factors such as labour market opportunities, academic aptitude, distance from home, personal preferences or socio-economic characteristics, and students are at a loss as to what to prioritise and what will really influence their future.

As fees rise, students are more likely to demand a marketable degree that provides them with a solid return on their investment or more value for their money.

Behavioural economics suggests that in the face of complex decision-making, human nature tends to resort to heuristics – or conventionally agreed rules of thumb. This may lead to decisions based more on widespread beliefs than on a well thought-out decision-making process. For instance, a common belief is that any tertiary degree will boost the chances of gainful employment compared to not having one. This is not the case. For example, in the United Kingdom, adults with an arts and humanities degree earn less than those who have only attained upper secondary. Yet, the share of adults with such a degree has been rising across generations: about 1 in 4 recent graduates held an arts and humanities degree, the highest across all OECD countries, compared to 1 in 8 in the 25-64 year-old population. The quality of the education delivered by institutions and its credibility in the labour market will also come into play.

The reality is that many prospective students are confused as to what path to follow after school. Recent work based on the latest PISA results of 15-year-old students reveals that young people narrow their career expectations to a limited list of the most traditional occupations. The surveys show that too many teenagers are ignoring or are unaware of new types of jobs that are emerging, particularly because of digitalisation. This does not get better when students graduate from school and our evidence suggests that young people’s career aspirations are often poorly aligned with labour market demand.

So where do prospective students go for reliable information and advice? Many turn to their school or to the higher education institutions themselves for guidance and career counselling. However, the growing marketization of universities and other tertiary institutions has led many to question the impartiality of the information they provide. The sheer amount of information available in our digital world has also left many students struggling to prioritise and filter the most relevant elements for them. This is where effective career guidance combined with close engagement with the labour market can and should play an important role. This starts at a young age, when attitudes start to form. Schools can start by encouraging young people to think openly about their future selves, the opportunities in this world, and where their strengths intersect with their aspirations and society’s needs. Without strong career guidance, it may come as no surprise if students make arbitrary choices about their future.

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