Fear of debt deters poorer students from university, study finds

Students from poorer backgrounds are deterred from applying to university due to fear of student loan debt, according to a new study. With Labour’s election pledge to abolish tuition fees, the effects of student debt are back on the political agenda.

Researchers from LLAKES compared results from two surveys of prospective undergraduates in England, dating from 2002 and 2015. They found that student loans, rather than enabling greater equality among those who choose to attend university, limit opportunities for young people from low-income backgrounds.

Student loan debt has risen sharply in England since 2002 due to dramatic changes in student funding policies. Tuition fees have increased by 553 per cent after allowing for inflation, while the government has shifted the cost of going to university away from taxpayers and onto students and their families. Most students in England now have to borrow if they want to go to university.

The findings show that overall young people are more willing to take on student loan debt in 2015 than in 2002, believing that a degree is a good investment. There has also been a rise in the number of people attending university, including among those from low-income backgrounds.

Yet socio-economic inequalities in access to higher education persist. Young people from a working-class background are far more likely than students from other social classes to avoid applying to university because of fear of debt. Debt aversion has increased both among working-class students and those from the squeezed middle-class. But significantly, debt averse attitudes remain much stronger among working-class students than among upper-class students, and more so now than in 2002.

Professor Claire Callender, co-author of the paper, said:

‘The lower proportion of university students from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot be adequately explained simply by pointing to academic achievement at school. Student funding and fear of debt play a role. University enrolments may be increasing overall but policymakers must focus on ways to level the playing field for poorer students. Abolishing tuition fees or adopting a means-tested approach would be ways of addressing this inequality.’

The findings also have implications for countries such as the US, where student loan take-up and debt have risen and income-driven repayment plans have emerged on the policy agenda.

About the authors

  • Claire Callender is Professor of Higher Education Policy, UCL Institute of Education and Birkbeck
  • Geoff Mason is Visiting Professor, Centre for Research on Learning and Life Chances (LLAKES), UCL Institute of Education