The Australian Centre for Student Equity and Success acknowledges Indigenous peoples as the Traditional Owners of the lands on which our campuses are situated. With a history spanning 60,000 years as the original educators, Indigenous peoples hold a unique place in Australia. We recognise the importance of their knowledge and culture, and reflect the principles of participation, equity, and cultural respect in our work. We pay our respects to Elders past, present, and future, and consider it an honour to learn from our Indigenous colleagues, partners, and friends.

You are reading: Aspirations, equity and higher education course choice: The path travelled

Dr Felicia Jaremus, Dr Kristina Sincock, Dr Sally Patfield, Dr Elena Prieto, Dr Leanne Fray, Laureate Professor Jennifer Gore
The University of Newcastle

Executive summary

This project, Aspirations, equity and higher education course choice: The path travelled, examined which students realise their childhood aspirations, for what higher education courses, and why. ‘Aspirations’ have become a cornerstone of efforts to widen the participation of underrepresented groups in Australian higher education, with considerable practical and political attention given to ‘raising’ aspirations over recent decades. However, with very little longitudinal research on how students actually navigate their post-school futures, much of this activity has proceeded with limited understanding of the factors that enable or constrain the fulfilment of students’ aspirations post-school.

Focusing on targeted equity groups and first-in-family (FiF) students, this project addressed the following questions:

  1. How do early aspirations (at ages 10-18) relate to post-school and higher education course choices?
  2. What equity insights can participants from the Aspirations studies, provide with regards to the path they travelled in making their higher education choices?
  3. How might recent environmental, health and economic crises shape institutional efforts to ensure more equitable participation across courses?

To answer these questions, we drew on an existing data set (n = 12,068 surveys and n = 360 focus groups) documenting the post-school aspirations of students enrolled in Years 3-12 between 2012 and 2017 across a wide range of New South Wales (NSW) government schools. Additional data were collected in 2021 via online surveys (n = 52) and interviews (n = 21) with original participants who are now one to five years post-school. The additional data were central to the analysis, with the existing data primarily used as context for data collected in 2021. The expanded survey data enabled an overview of the types of educational and occupational pathways that participants followed and factors that influenced the pathways taken. Interview data were used to provide seven detailed case studies of the different university-related pathways identified in the survey data.

Major findings from the project were:

  • Young people traverse a wide variety of pathways after school, ranging from those who directly pursue their educational and occupational aspirations to completion, to those who are forced to abandon their aspirations as a result of obstacles that cannot be navigated. Others choose to take up new or unexpected opportunities and end up in places they could not have envisioned, while some are still seeking a path several years post-school.
  • Most participants’ educational and occupational aspirations changed at least somewhat in the years following their schooling. Less than a third of participants indicated that their education (29%) and career (21%) aspirations had not changed
    at all.
  • Participants who pursued their aspirations with few disruptions were most likely to have taken a ‘path well-travelled’ to a career that is aligned with their current demographic status.
  • Participants from targeted equity groups who ‘took the path less travelled’ to university typically possessed strong motivation to improve their personal, community, or family situation, with some even framing university as a means to ‘escape’. All demonstrated high levels of tenacity and determination in forging new pathways and overcoming various obstacles along the way.
  • Course and institution choice were based on a mixture of early interest, affective factors, and practicalities. Practicalities, such as whether early entry was offered, the proximity of the chosen university to home, and whether the course was perceived to lead to a career which would provide a ‘better’ life, were particularly influential for participants from disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • There was widespread agreement among participants that university, regardless of the chosen course, is marketed as the most acceptable and desirable pathway after school, with all other pathways held in lower esteem by schools and communities. Many participants struggled with this narrative, feeling it had loomed over their choices and aspirations. Some retrospectively rejected this narrative as false and harmful.
  • The most prevalent and disruptive obstacle for participants in meeting their aspirations was mental ill-health. A conglomeration of personal, relational, and economic challenges drove both acute and long-term episodes of mental ill-health. Such episodes were common in participants who were forced to abandon their pathway and begin a new journey.
  • University students from equity target groups faced an array of challenges arising from their lack of access to knowledge about specific careers, specific courses, or the university system. Almost all participants indicated that the career education they received at school was insufficient to prepare them for life post-school.
  • While most of the participants were largely unaffected by recent droughts and floods, the first year of COVID-19 had a diverse impact on young people. Some lost their jobs, had to move home after working internationally, faced delays in their studies or otherwise felt disadvantaged by the transition to online study. Others enjoyed studying online or took the opportunity to return to study and felt positive about their choice to do so.
  • There were higher than average levels of unemployment among participants surveyed in 2021 (12%). However, in general, young people were feeling positive about their futures. Over 75% thought they would achieve their current career and educational aspirations.


These recommendations are largely drawn from the insights provided by participants in their surveys and interviews and inevitably overlap.


  • Identify past students who can return to the school and speak about the post-school pathways they have pursued. Ideally, these students will represent a range of different pathways and will come from a diverse range of backgrounds. Past students who have followed non-traditional pathways should be prioritised.
  • Strengthen career education. Broaden students’ knowledge of the current economic climate and its rapidly shifting nature. Emphasis should be on helping students develop the skills to navigate increasingly uncertain and insecure working conditions. Information should also be given about the career spectrum, including careers that require university qualifications and those that do not, and support to understand the specific requirements for aspirations.
  • Provide students aspiring to non-university pathways equal access to information and support in meeting their aspirations.
  • Make use of research evidence. This includes making the case studies in this document available to students as a way for them to gain access to insights on the paths recently travelled by young people interested in university post-school.
  • Assist students with understanding alternative pathways into different degrees, certificates, or careers. Emphasise when pathways other than direct entry into university can be used.
  • Ensure students are aware of the financial support available to them after school. This could include providing information about different Centrelink payments and the eligibility requirements for these, as well as information about scholarships offered by different institutions.

Higher education providers

  • Identify current university students who can return to secondary schools and share their experiences of university life. Ideally, these students will be from equity target groups and be able to understand, and speak to, the challenges that can arise for students who would not traditionally access university.
  • Work with schools to provide students with information about alternative pathways into higher education, i.e., those that do not require an ATAR. This should also include information about financial support and scholarships available to students.
  • Prioritise scholarships for students from equity target groups and establish targeted enrolment positions for these students where possible.
  • Establish a mentoring program that assists students from equity target groups with their transition to university. Mentors would ideally be students from equity target groups who have already attended university for at least one year. These mentors could work with new students to assist them with university culture, understanding course requirements, and balancing work and study. Creating social opportunities for students from equity target groups to meet each other and share struggles they might be facing would also be beneficial.
  • Establish systemic responses to disasters, including future pandemics, droughts or floods, which take into account shifts in students’ financial and support systems.
  • Prioritise funding for student mental health services and ensure that students are aware of the services available as well as the steps required to access these services. Providers should be aware that some students will require access to long term support while others will require intermittent support during particularly stressful periods.
  • Train all teaching and professional staff who have contact with, or make decisions affecting, students in the mental health services available at their university so they effectively guide students towards appropriate professional support. Embed additional opportunities for post-university career planning into undergraduate degrees, with emphasis on skills to navigate increasingly uncertain and insecure working conditions. Provide students with this information early in their degrees to help them build a resilient map towards flexible destinations early on.


  • Provide additional funding for career education in schools. This funding should include training for all teachers and additional timetabled school hours dedicated to career education and planning for students.
  • Establish a non-partisan body to evaluate the skills that will be in demand in the post-COVID world and how youth can be prepared for a labour market dominated by perpetual uncertainty.
  • Promote policies that lift the status of TAFE, recognise that functioning societies need workers in all occupations, and alleviate the pressure on all young people to attend university.
  • Fund and promote policies to support youth experiencing mental ill-health. Free access to mental health providers through bulk billing is needed for all young people, particularly given the heightened economic, social and environmental challenges faced by this generation.
  • Invest in low-cost accommodation for students who need to relocate from their family home to pursue higher education in order to support the additional financial burden of attending university for these students.

Read the full report: Aspirations, equity and higher education course choice: The path travelled

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

Expert review

Associate Professor Jenny Chesters
Melbourne Graduate School of Education
University of Melbourne

This report includes seven interesting case studies that add to existing research about the occupational aspirations of young people. Young people benefit from support and guidance rather than pressure. This comes across clearly in the case studies where the young people were pressured by the parents. Their aspirations are fluid, therefore they should be supported to make decisions that keep them heading in the right direction without being locked into one trajectory – they need options to switch. The pathways into and through university are fluid, therefore young people have opportunities to take up different options – this is a good thing. The role of schools, careers advisors in particular, and outreach programs is to provide opportunities for students to discover the options that are available. First in family students will need far more information and support as they are likely to have little contact with university-educated relatives/ family friends [i.e. cultural and social capital]. Maybe the careers advisor role could be reconfigured into an ‘advisor for options for further study and training’. Even experts in the field do not know what jobs there will be in the future, so it is a bit silly to expect careers advisors to know.

The role of government is to provide opportunities for study for everyone who is capable and willing to dedicate the time and effort to study. University is not a universal right – it requires dedication and hard work. The results of the survey data in this report indicate that governments should be investing in low cost accommodation for students who need to relocate from their family home in order to study at university / VET providers.

Download the full report:
ACSES Quote icon
1 MB
Featured publications
The Critical Interventions Framework Part 3 (CIF 3) focuses on evaluative studies which provide details of the impacts of specific interventions on equity groups in relation to access to and success in higher education.
A case study documenting the transition of one Indigenous student, Robbie, from an underprivileged school located in the Western suburbs of Sydney to an urban Australian university.