Self-belief helps young people be the first in their family to go to university

Happy student and her friend reading their exam results while walking through university hallway.

Young people whose parents don’t have a degree are more likely to go to university themselves if they have confidence in their academic ability and a sense of control over their own lives, according to findings from Next Steps.  

Researchers found that these, and some other personality traits and attitudes, were important for breaking down barriers and helping young people to become the first in their family to go to university.

What we asked you

At ages 13, 14, 15, and 16, we asked you various questions designed to measure the sense of control you felt over your lives, your belief in your academic abilities, work ethic and self-esteem. We asked you things like how well you felt you were doing in different subjects at school, and to what extent you agreed with a range of different statements such as, ‘If you work hard at something, you’ll usually succeed’ and ‘Working hard at school now will help me to get on later in life.’ 

When we surveyed you at age 25, you told us whether you had been to university. If we had consent, we added information from the National Pupil Database to your survey records, including the results of school tests at age 11.  

A team of researchers from UCL used this information, and other data collected through our surveys, to find out what factors can positively affect young people’s chances of attending university.   

What the researchers found

Among your generation overall, those who went to university tended to be those who, as teenagers, had felt a greater sense of control over their futures and shown more belief in their abilities, higher self-esteem and a strong work ethic, compared to those who didn’t go to university. This was the case even when accounting for school test results at age 11 and a range of family background factors.    

Interestingly, the researchers found that young people who had been the first in their family to go to university had significantly higher levels of academic self-belief, felt more control over their futures, and a greater work ethic than university students with graduate parents. Both groups had similar levels of self-esteem.  

While all these things increased the chances of a university education for those without graduate parents, the researchers found that strong academic self-belief was especially helpful for boys. Among all potential first-generation university students, self-esteem was particularly important for helping young people fulfil their potential. Those who did well in tests at age 11 and had good levels of self-esteem were more likely to attend university. However, students who had similar test results, but low self-esteem, were not as likely to go to university. This shows the need to focus on creating policies to support underconfident students who don’t have the advantage of having parents who have been through the university system themselves.   

Why this research matters

University education is a key driver of social mobility. People with a degree are less likely to be unemployed and even live longer than peers without a degree. Those who are already better off are more likely to go to university and experience these benefits. 

Thanks to the information you have shared with us through Next Steps, researchers have been able to identify factors that can help those from less advantaged backgrounds beat the odds and access university. Characteristics such as academic self-belief are changeable, so encouraging these early in life can help to reduce social inequalities.   

Find out more about this research

Intergenerational educational mobility – The role of non-cognitive skills by Anna Adamecz, Morag Henderson and Nikki Shure was published in Education Economics was published in 2023.