It is worth the cost? Perceptions of higher education amongst young white British males from areas of educational disadvantage


The comparatively low rates of higher education (HE) progression amongst young men from white, working class backgrounds has received a significant amount of attention in recent years. This has been accompanied by calls for a ‘response’ from the HE sector (Raven, 2022, 644). Although how best to react remains uncertain. Given this uncertainty, and questions over the effectiveness of past interventions, there is a strong case for more research into the ‘barriers to progression experienced by’ these young men (Bowes et al. 2019, 6, Bowes et al. 2021).

In seeking to contribute to the evidence base, I was commissioned to conduct a study into the educational ambitions and motivations of young, white British males from five areas of educational and economic disadvantage across the North West of England (Raven, 2022). This blog, which is an edited version of one published by HEPI (Raven, 2024), reports and reflects on some of the findings to emerge from the research (Raven, 2022). Prominent amongst these findings were the views held by participants on higher education as a post-18 option. These views were captured in focus groups. Seventy young men aged between 14 and 17 took part in these discussions. All were from neighbourhoods where few young people, and fewer than expected given level 2 (GCSE and equivalent) attainment, progress (Office for Students, 2021). The ‘explanatory framework’ used in the study applied the concept of the ‘costs’ of participation to understand their HE reservations (Raven, 2022, 645, Archer and Hutchinson 2000, Voigt 2007, Jones 2016).

Although they came from across the NW, ‘many of the same doubts and concerns were voiced’ by participants (Raven, 2022, 652). These included the direct costs of HE. Indeed, the ‘expense’ was described as ‘one of the biggest deterrents to going to university,’ with reference made to the potential for the financial consequences to be ‘overwhelming.’ Their concerns related not just to fees but also to the ability to ‘pay for food, clothes, bills [and] everything’ else (Raven, 2022, 653).

The opportunity costs of university also loomed large in these discussions. HE participation would mean foregoing the chance to gain work experience, secure employment or an apprenticeship, and acquire important ‘life skills’ (Raven, 2022, 653-655). In addition, there was the risk (‘non-pecuniary cost’) that a higher education would not necessarily lead to a desired job (Raven, 2022, 648). The HE option also came with ‘lifestyle and emotional costs.’ For a number of participants, university was viewed as being ‘like school’ and, consequently, unlikely to be an agreeable experience (Raven, 2022, 656). Linked to this were concerns regarding ‘the way subjects would be delivered and how one would be expected to learn,’ with reference made to the prospect of attending ‘lectures’ and having to manage ‘loads of work.’ It was also considered to require a great deal of ‘reading’ and ‘writing,’ when there was a desire to ‘get out and get doing.’ (Raven, 2022, 656).

Perhaps, more fundamentally, concerns were expressed about not fitting in (‘identify costs’). One participant considered that they would not enjoy university because ‘I just don’t think it’s me.’ Whilst they acknowledge that it would be beneficial ‘to experience it first hand to know what it’s like,’ they did not ‘want to take that risk.’ (Raven, 2022, 656). Similarly, concerns were raised about their ‘ability to succeed’ in higher education (‘failure conscious costs’). Here, reference was made to the anxiety of ‘going and not passing’ and, consequently, of ‘not getting anything out of it.’ (Raven, 2022, 657).

Voigt (2007, 105) contends that ‘higher education is riskier, more costly and less beneficial, and hence a far worse investment for non-traditional students than it is for their middle-class peers’. This would appear to apply to the white British teenage males who took part in my study (Raven, 2022). That said, their insights may also indicate how outreach practitioners, and others, might best support them. Notably, in drawing on the first-hand experiences of those who have come from the same neighbourhoods and opted for university. However, there is also a need for more research, not only to gain a more detailed appreciation of the perspectives of these young men but in order to acquire a clearer ‘understand of the graduate outcomes’ (financial and otherwise) of those who are like them but decided on the HE option (Raven, 2022, 659).

Blog By: Neil Raven


Archer, L., and M. Hutchinson. 2000. “Bettering Yourself? Discourses of Risk, Cost and Benefit in Ethnically Diverse, Young working-class non-participants’ Constructions of Higher Education.” British Journal of Sociology of Education 21 (4): 555–574. doi:10.1080/ 713655373.

Bowes, L., S. Tazzyman, J. Sandhu, R. Moreton, G. Birkin, C. McCaig, M. Madriaga, E. Kozman, and H. Wright. 2019. “The National Collaborative Outreach Programme. End of Phase 1 Report for the National Formative and Impact Evaluations.” Office for Students, -6bf8d1504e72/ncop-end-of-phase-one-evaluation-report.pdf.

Bowes, L., S. Tazzyman, R. Steer, G. Birkin, and S. Telhaj. 2021. “An independent evaluation of Uni Connect’s impact on intermediate outcomes for learners. A report for the Office for Students on the first three waves of the longitudinal survey of Uni Connect target learners.” uc_wave-2-survey-findings_final_for_web.pdf.

Jones, S. 2016. “Expressions of Student Debt Aversion and Tolerance among Academically Able Young People in low-participation English Schools.” British Educational Research Journal 42 (2): 277–293. doi:10.1002/berj.3209.

Office for Students. 2021. Uni Connect, guidance/promoting-equal-opportunities/uni-connect/.

Raven. N. 2024. The cost of participation: perceptions of higher education amongst young, white British males from areas of educational disadvantage, Higher Education Policy Institute. Blog (24 January),

Raven. N. 2022. Recognising the risks: perceptions of higher education amongst young white British males from areas of educational disadvantages, Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 27:4, 643-663, DOI: 10.1080/13596748.2022.2110777.

Voigt, K. 2007. “Individual Choice and Unequal Participation in Higher Education.” Theory and Research in Education 5 (1): 87–112,

Scroll to Top