The aim of my thesis was to ascertain the extent to which students from low-socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds have been able to progress through higher education (HE) and have succeeded in completing qualifications at the same rate as high-SES students. The backdrop to the study is the high level of inequality in South Africa. A Gini coefficient of 0.65 translates, in the education sector, into high enrolment rates in comparison with other developing countries but very low achievement, with South Africa frequently appearing at the bottom of tables comparing international performance on mathematics, science, and literacy tests (for example TIMSS, PIRLS and SACMEQ) .

The data for the study come from a baseline survey and two tracer surveys of student pathways from school into and through HE which I conducted at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) between 2005 and 2008. While the HSRC study focussed on student aspirations for HE and on student destinations one year later, this study extends the scope to include progression through HE between 2006 and 2010, cross-referencing the HSRC data with Higher Education Management Information System student records. These data are supplemented by case studies of the trajectories of ten students interviewed in late 2008.

One of the key findings of the study is that high-SES students tend to enrol in degree programmes in the natural, mathematical, engineering and health sciences, low-SES students in diploma programmes in business, commerce and the human or social sciences. Importantly, high-SES students are more influenced in choosing a programme of study by intrinsic interest in a programme rather than by the prospect of employment; they are also more influenced by the money and status their chosen profession will confer – suggesting that SES differences are more nuanced.

SES was also found to be a strong differentiating feature in student progression through HE, student retention within HE, and student completion of a HE programme. Low-SES students are more likely than their high-SES counterparts to drop out of HE, both after the first and after the second year of study, and are less likely to complete a programme, whether they remain loyal to their programme of first enrolment or switch programmes in the course of their studies. The South African experience in this regard mirrors the US and UK experience. There are large differences in US college completion rates (as measured by completion of Bachelor’s degrees) according to SES. Indeed, each gradation in SES (from low- to middle- to high-SES) has been shown by Adelman (2006) to increase the probability of degree completion by about 6 per cent. Similarly, low-SES students in the UK are more likely to drop out of university, less likely to achieve a qualification, and less likely to achieve a first or upper-second class pass than are their high-SES counterparts.

SES is also a distinguishing feature in the timing of entry to, and the nature of progression through, HE. The HSRC study showed that high-SES students in South Africa are much less likely than their middle- and low-SES counterparts to delay entry into HE: four in five high-SES students proceeded directly to HE after school, while only three in five low-SES students did so. This finding bears out the US experience: in 2009, 55 per cent of low-SES versus 84 per cent of high-SES school-leavers proceeded directly to HE.

From a progression perspective,  the study found that students who complete their programmes of study almost without exception study continuously. This finding is borne out in the US, as Adelman (2006) found that being enrolled continuously increases the probability of students’ earning a Bachelor’s degree by 43 percent. The HSRC study shows that high-SES students who entered HE in 2006, and proceeded uninterruptedly through the system to completion, outnumbered low-SES students pursuing this pathway by 16 percentage points (43 per cent to 27 per cent).

On balance, the findings of the HSRC 2005-2010 tracer study are not entirely out of step with those describing student pathways in the US and the UK. SES is a differentiating feature in the HE systems of all three countries, as is the phenomenon of stop-out in South Africa and the US. Very high inequality in South Africa (a Gini coefficient of 0.65 in 2011), relatively high inequality in the US (0.40 in 2013), and a coefficient in the UK (0.35 in 2012) closer to, but still above, the OECD average of 0.32, have contributed to societies in which income disparities play out in unequal HE completion rates. But South Africa’s completion rate (39 per cent), due in large measure to the structural inequalities bestowed by apartheid, will not easily catch those of the US and UK.

The key distinction between low- and high-SES students, the study concludes, is that high-SES students complete programmes at higher rates and in a shorter timeframe. SES therefore remains a strong determinant of academic success. And while the HE sector and the National Qualifications Framework might aspire to reduce inequalities in access, mobility and throughput, indications are that these inequalities are still being reproduced.

Dr Michael Cosser


This reflection is based on his PhD thesis: Differential pathways of South African students through higher education: Settling for less, but learning to like it. Unpublished PhD thesis. Johannesburg: University of the Witwatersrand.