What do students expect to do after finishing upper secondary school?

by Guillermo Montt
Analyst, Directorate for Education

The expansion of the knowledge-based economy and technological progress has created a large market of highly paid jobs for individuals who are highly skilled. Moreover, in much of the industrialised world, the demand for highly-skilled individuals is rising faster than supply, as mirrored in rising wage premia on university-level qualifications. Leveraging the talent of all individuals, whatever their social background, must therefore be an important goal for educators and policy makers alike.

The latest edition of PISA in Focus summarises findings from the PISA Report Grade Expectations: How Marks and Education Policies Shape Students’ Ambitions. PISA reveals that the range of educational expectations that students hold in different countries striking: In Korea, four out of five 15-year-olds expect to graduate from university, while in Latvia it is one out of four. Despite the major changes in skill requirements that most labour-markets experienced in the past decades, and the rapidly rising number of university graduates, the educational expectations of students in school have remained surprisingly stable.

In all countries and economies, the students who expect to complete university education perform significantly better in math and reading than students who do not expect to complete that level of education.  However, while performance on PISA tends to be associated with educational expectations, the data also show that not all 15-year-olds with advanced knowledge and skills aspire to high levels of further education and not all 15-year-olds who aspire to a university degree possess the knowledge and skills needed to pursue such pathways successfully.

The percentage of low-performing students who expect to complete a university degree is relatively high in Australia, Ireland, Korea, Mexico, Serbia, Singapore and Trinidad and Tobago. These school systems therefore need to capitalise on their students’ desire to continue their education by encouraging greater engagement with school and offering better opportunities to learn so that low-achieving, but ambitious, students can improve their performance and have a better chance of succeeding. The proportion of high-performing students who do not expect to continue on to post-secondary education is relatively large – more than 10% – in Austria, Hong Kong-China, Iceland and Italy. These school systems should aim to raise their students’ expectations by, among other measures, enhancing engagement with school and ensuring that placement in academic or vocational programmes is based on merit, not on students’ background. Mismatches between expectations and actual abilities can result not just in personal disappointments but also incur important economic and social costs.

Students who hold ambitious – yet realistic – expectations about their educational prospects are more likely to put effort into their learning and make better use of the educational opportunities available to them to achieve their goals. Therefore educational expectations, in part, become self-fulfilling prophecies. Education systems need to strike a careful balance between promoting ambitious expectations among students – because the labour-market demand for high-level skills is surging and will probably continue to grow in the future – promoting skill acquisition so that more students are able to fulfil those expectations but also not neglecting those students who expect to complete their studies upon graduation from secondary school. Although most school systems are committed to expanding access to tertiary education, around 25% of students expect to finish their formal education at the end of upper secondary school. Education systems must provide these students with the skills needed for a smooth transition into the labour market and adulthood.


Photo credit:  Graduate wordcloud / Shutterstock

Leave a Reply