Working Paper

First-in-their-family students at university: Can non-cognitive skills compensate for social origin?

Published: 2021

We study the role of non-cognitive skills (NCS) in university readiness and performance of first-in-family students (FIFS) using both nationally representative survey data and linked survey-administrative data on an incoming student cohort at a leading Australian university. In both data sources we find that FIFS enter university with lower cognitive skills (-0.3 SD), but with the same NCS as non-FIFS. FIFS have 0.24 SD lower grade-point averages (GPA) and are up to 50 percent more likely to drop-out after Year 1 than non-FIFS. Yet, FIFS catch up with non-FIFS by the end of Year 2. Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Openness (when adjusting for measurement error with anchoring vignettes), and Locus of Control (when allowing for non-linearities) are predictive of GPA. High levels of Conscientiousness offset FIFS performance penalties; low levels exacerbate them, especially when controlling for measurement error. Our findings accentuate the importance of NCS as facilitator of educational mobility.

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Edwards, R., Gibson, R., Harmon, C., & Schurer, S.(2021) First-in-their-family students at university: Can non-cognitive skills compensate for social origin? Centre for Education Policy and Equalising
Opportunities (CEPEO) Working Paper No. 21-03.