First generation university students need more advice, support and mentorship

Morag Henderson Nikki Shure Anna Adamecz-Völgyi






Morag Henderson, Nikki Shure and Anna Adamecz-Volgyi report on their ‘first in family’ findings.


In a post on the Data Impact blog in 2018, we outlined our project aims and preliminary results on a project examining the educational experiences and labour market outcomes of first in family (FiF) students. This new blog post aims to update you on the things we found.


What does ‘first in family’ mean?

‘First in family’ is where neither parent graduated from university.

Our research examined whether being first in family presents a barrier to university participation, and if FiF students have different experiences while at university and in the labour market.


What did we find?

Our research found that access to university is still not equal.

Take two young people of the same age, with similar GCSEs and who come from a similar socioeconomic background; except that one has graduate parents while the other has not. The one without graduate parents would be almost half as likely to go to university as the other.

More specifically, the probability of university participation by parental education is 34% for potential first in family students, while for those with graduate parents the probability is 72%.

While at university, first in family students are three percentage points less likely to attend elite universities than their peers with university-educated parents.

They were also four percentage points more likely to drop out of university than students whose parents have a degree, conditional on their prior attainment and a range of demographic characteristics.

We found that having non-graduate parents is one of the most important barriers to university participation; more important than free school meal eligibility and the neighbourhood where you live, for example.

Interestingly, among women, we found that parental education inequalities continue in the labour market.

In their mid-20s, first in family graduate women earn about 7% less than graduate women with graduate parents. Among graduate men, we find no such difference.

The female FiF-pay gap is partially explained through pre-university educational attainment and elite university attendance, working in smaller firms, working in jobs that do not require a degree and motherhood status.


Data and funding

Our research, which is funded by the Nuffield Foundation, makes use of Next Steps, a rich longitudinal cohort study which has been following the lives of a group of people in England, born in 1989-90.


Our recommendations

As a result of our findings (summarised in this report), we believe that universities should take first in family status seriously in order to increase equality in higher education.

That means advising potential first in family students better, supporting and mentoring them both while at university, and when they enter the labour market.

We also noted that measuring first in family status is challenging.

We recommend that the higher education sector should increase its efforts to improve the way it is measured on application forms and validated by admission teams.

Our results also point to the need for contextual admissions.

The effects of family background are shown in young people’s educational achievements early. By the time they get to the age of university application, first in family students might lag behind children of graduate parents quite a bit.

That’s why we’re calling for a continued commitment from universities to make adjusted offers to students which consider first in family status among other socioeconomic, individual and school level information.

We know that higher education plays a fundamental role in improving later labour market and life outcomes, so it remains all the more important that universities are able to identify students who have a high potential to succeed, irrespective of their background.

We believe that focusing on first in family status will help to do this.

Project video



About the authors

Dr Morag Henderson is an Associate Professor in Sociology at UCL Institute of Education and is the Principal Investigator of Next Steps, a large English longitudinal dataset, managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies.

She completed her D.Phil. in Sociology at the University of Oxford in 2013. Her research interests include documenting social inequalities in education, social isolation and wellbeing.


Nikki Shure is Associate Professor in Economics at the UCL Social Research Institute at University College London and a Research Fellow at the Institute of Labor Economics (IZA).

She completed her PhD in Economics as a Weidenfeld Scholar at the University of Oxford with a focus on labour economics and education economics. Her research interests include non-cognitive skills and life outcomes, overconfidence, gender and ambition, and inequalities in access to higher education and the labour market.


Dr Anna Adamecz-Völgyi is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Economic and Regional Research Institute of Economics (KRTK KTI), a Research Associate at the University College London Social Research Institute (UCL SRI), and a Fellow at the Global Labor Institute (GLO).

She earned her PhD in Economics at the Central European University (CEU). She is an empirical social scientist aiming to understand the world better by one small question at a time. Her research interests include labour economics, economics of education, fertility, social and educational mobility, and gender inequalities.


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