Social Selectivity in Tertiary Education and Labour Market and Stratification Outcomes

Research question/goal: 

In recent years, significant changes occurred in higher education due to increasing student participation and increasing differentiation of types of tertiary institutions, courses of study and final degrees. The aim of the project was to examine the processes of change associated with this expansion and differentiation in two respects:

  • the socially unequal participation in diverse programmes of tertiary education as well as the mechanisms and the causes of change of the social selectivity;
  • the labour market outcomes of graduates of the diverse tertiary education programmes as well as the consequences for intergenerational social mobility following from changing social selectivity of and changing returns to tertiary education.

These questions are investigated for Germany and in some aspects in international comparisons. Analyses are based on comprehensive quantitative data allowing the study of long-term changes over time (Micro-census, European Labour Force Surveys, population surveys und especially student survey data collected by the Higher Education Information System (HIS) Hanover).Overall, inequality in eligibility for higher education has decreased significantly, especially as a consequence of more numerous provision of vocationally oriented paths to obtain the higher education entrance qualification, in which participation rates of children from low class background have increased substantially. However, as social selectivity in secondary education decreased, it increased in the transition to different options of post-secondary and tertiary education. Especially students from low class background make increasingly less use of their achieved eligibility for higher education studies. Nonetheless, when summing up both developments, it turns out that inequality in acquiring higher education has decreased slightly in the long term. The results also show that essentially so-called secondary (i.e. not performance-related) factors govern the class-related transition rates to the different options of post-secondary and tertiary education. Different preferences regarding length of education as well as financial restrictions make up the largest part of these secondary effects. The project also gained various new findings concerning the choice of diverse fields of study as well as concerning changes in gender and ethnicity based inequalities in higher education participation. Against expressed concerns that the expansion of higher education might be associated with an inflationary devaluation of educational degrees, results do not indicate a continual decline of educational returns on the German labour market. Even though in the eighties and in the first half of the nineties, the absolute occupational returns to tertiary education qualification in terms of attaining service class positions or positions of high occupational prestige slightly attenuated – especially among women – the returns increase again afterwards. Also relative to developments of returns to other qualifications, no notable long-term devaluation of the highly advantageous standing of higher education degrees is observable in the German labour market. Regarding the consequences of developments in the educational system for social mobility the results indicate that the reproduction of inequalities over generations has decreased and social permeability has increased in the long term. The decrease is on the one hand attributable to reduced inequalities in the acquisition of education. On the other hand, it is a direct result of the expansion of higher education: the subsequent occupational career is less dependent on conditions of social origin among persons with higher education than among persons with lower educational attainment. Thus, intergenerational reproduction of inequality has slightly diminished and intergenerational social mobility has increased also as a result of changes in the population’s educational composition due to growing shares of higher education graduates. These and further results of the project, including those based on international comparisons, can be found in the numerous publications of the project.

Current stage: 

Fact sheet

2003 to 2012
Data Sources: 
Labour Force Surveys
Geographic Space: 
Western Europe