The Link between Household Income, University Applications and University Attendance


  • Submitted April 2012.

  • This research forms part of the Nuffield Foundation project ‘Higher Education Funding and Access: Exploring Common Beliefs’ (grant number EDU/39084). The project is based at the Institute of Education (IoE) and the Institute for Fiscal Studies. It is directed by Claire Crawford, Lorraine Dearden, Alissa Goodman, John Micklewright and Anna Vignoles. The author thanks his supervisors Lorraine Dearden and John Micklewright for their patient support. Thanks also to Claire Crawford and John Jerrim for their feedback and to Peter Backus for his advice on local polynomial smoothing. The author gratefully acknowledges his studentship funded by the IoE as part of the ESRC NCRM ADMIN node.


Given the high returns to holding a degree, it is important to understand the relationship between household income and university entry in terms of the likely consequences for social mobility. This paper provides new evidence using the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England. I provide estimates of the income gradients in university participation overall and at a group of high-status institutions (the Russell Group). I also investigate the extent to which these gaps may be driven by discrimination against students from lower-income backgrounds by universities, by considering income gradients in applications. I find substantial differences in university entry overall and at Russell Group institutions between students from high- and low-income families. However, I show that most of the difference is driven by application decisions, particularly once I control for ‘ability’ at age 11. This suggests that universities do not discriminate against students from poorer backgrounds. Instead, those students are less likely to apply. These findings suggest that policies aimed at reducing the university participation gap at the point of entry are likely to face small rewards. More likely to be successful are policies aimed at closing the substantial applications gap, particularly by ensuring that students from poorer backgrounds have the necessary qualifications to apply.