Equal opportunities in higher education – fair access for everyone?

A person’s opportunities in life are greatly influenced by their educational success. Educational success is in turn strongly affected by the social background, such as the family´s origin, and is passed down from one generation to the next. This reproduction within the educational and economic system can be mitigated by active measures, ensuring that this crucial access to social mobility is not denied to anyone due to their background.

"Everyone is the architect of their own fortune" – This ideal of meritocracy suggests that a person's success is determined solely by their own achievements and that each individual has the opportunity to develop personal skills and potential. A high level of education and the resulting career opportunities are considered essential for the desired social ascent. However, the concept that everyone has the same educational and mobility opportunities often contradicts reality.


Higher education in Germany

In the academic year 2022/23, which included the summer and winter semesters, the number of students in Germany was approximately 2.9 million. Of these, 473,000 students began their first semester that year. This results in 56.4% of young adults from the corresponding birth year choosing to pursue higher education. In 2022, 47% of first-year students were from families in which no parent had attended university. In schools, the proportion of children with a non-academic background is significantly higher: nearly 75% of children come from households with no academic ties. The ratio of children with and without an academic background differs significantly between primary school and the start of university studies. The proportion of non-academic background children decreases with higher levels of education.

To illustrate this discrepancy more precisely: Out of 100 students from non-academic households, only 27 begin higher education. Of these, 20 complete a bachelor’s degree. Only 11 of them continue their studies to earn a master’s degree, and in the end, only 2 out of 100 students without an academic background earn a doctoral degree. In comparison, 79 out of 100 students from academic households start a bachelor’s degree, 64 complete it. Of these, 43 continue with a master’s degree, and ultimately, 6 out of 100 children from academic households obtain a doctoral degree.


Four Hurdles to Educational Success

The educational thresholds at the transition to upper secondary school and higher education are particularly relevant for a person´s educational success. At both points, the numbers of children without an academic background are roughly halved. In contrast, 4 out of 5 students from academic households not only reach upper secondary school but also pursue higher education.

1 Mental Barriers

The idea of attending university and the associated challenges can often seem daunting for children without an academic background, especially due to a lack of experience and role models in their immediate personal environment.

2 Competence Disadvantages

Children from non-academic households more frequently grow up in environments that are less stimulating for learning, characterized, for example, by a lack of books and the absence of museum visits. Additionally, parents are less able to support learning or afford tutoring. Often, there is a lack of dedicated spaces for completing schoolwork. Furthermore, there often is a lack of digital infrastructure, such as access to computers, leading to learning gaps.

3 Information Deficits

Limited experience and lack of information from the parental and social environment about study formats, subjects, and content often pose a challenge. This can lead to a fundamentally lower interest in studying or an overwhelming confrontation with the abundance of external information available.

4 Financing

Financial worries caused by a lack of parental support due to the household's low income or an unwillingness to finance studies make access to higher education more difficult. Additional financing options like BAföG (Federal Training Assistance Act), student loans, or scholarships are not always sufficient and can pose further bureaucratic hurdles in the application process.


Reducing Inequalities in Opportunities

To sustainably reduce inequalities in educational opportunities and promote topics such as diversity and inclusion, educational and societal measures need to be complemented by corporate engagement.

Companies can build a bridge between academia and industry by supporting mentoring programs at universities and by offering extensive internship and further education opportunities. Information events on career entry options can provide students not only with an overview of educational formats but also with important contacts for their future.

Another option is the funding and support of scholarships, especially for this target group. For example, the Germany Scholarship (Deutschlandstipendium) supports first-year students with a monthly financial aid of 300€, half of which is funded by the federal government and the other half by private donors. This enables students, regardless of their social background and the location of their university, to access educational opportunities.

Since first-generation academics may have unconventional resumes or little practical experience, interviewers should not exclude these candidates from the application process through perceptual biases. Recruiting first-generation academics for HR departments can be beneficial for mutual understanding in interviews.

Potential measures are diverse: For example, implementing individual career programs, and targeted support through mentoring and application training can help to close the gap between children from academic and non-academic backgrounds.

In times of demographic change and skilled labor shortages, companies can thus access a previously "overlooked" target group. By specifically promoting young talents from non-academic families, companies have the opportunity to enhance their competitiveness as employers while simultaneously contributing to a more diverse and equitable society.


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