How Communities Influence Young People's Post-School Aspirations


Leanne Fray, Sally Patfield, Jenny Gore and Jess Harris are researchers at the University of Newcastle who have published a book on 'Community Matters: The Complex Links Between Community and Young People's Aspirations for Higher Education'. Drawing on the perspectives of Australian school students, their parents/carers, teachers, and a vast array of residents from seven diverse communities, this book uses the lens of 'community' to reframe inequitable access.

In Australia, research on participation in higher education has proliferated over the past decade as part of broader reforms to redress historical exclusions in access.

The focus has often been the complex role of individual, family, and school-level factors in shaping aspirations for university, with a clear emphasis on ‘targeted equity groups’, particularly Indigenous Australians, students from low-socioeconomic backgrounds, and people living in regional and remote areas.

However, too often, these under-represented groups are treated as if they have a singular voice, a singular history, and a singular set of concerns. 

Drawing on the perspectives of Australian school students, their parents/carers, teachers, and a vast array of residents from seven diverse communities, our recent project expanded the traditional focus of research by examining the influence of ‘community’ on students’ post-school educational and occupational aspirations. 

At a local level, we found that complex social and cultural forces shape how young people form and articulate their post-school futures. 

For example, in wealthy communities, the choice to pursue higher education frequently centres on ‘which university’ to attend rather than whether to go to university or not. In such communities, university is seen as a relatively straightforward extension of schooling: 

I talk about uni as if it’s the next stage of school, there’s no option even involved, so ‘Oh, when you get to uni …’. So I’m trying to plant that idea that [university] is a natural progression, to give her the best opportunity. (Deanna, parent) 

However, some students show signs of emotional burden and diminished well-being from the pressure to achieve:

I would think that mental health issues would be a challenge for kids going to university … I just think their families will be supportive, but anxiety is going to be the big cripple for them. (Jen, teacher)

As Jen’s quote indicates, the culture of high expectations in wealthy communities can be anxiety-producing for some young people.

Our research also showed that access to higher education can be thwarted by distance from a university campus. However, we found that even having a university in close proximity is not enough to encourage young people to attend. Young people form vastly different ideas about what is possible or desirable in terms of their futures based on their geographic locale. 

In predominantly working-class areas, where higher education is a less familiar path, helping students to see what might be possible is an important part of supporting their aspirations:

It’s breaking the welfare cycle where it’s been a generational thing that they grow up and they just go on welfare, as their parents have done, as their parents’ parents have done. So, it’s a matter of breaking that cycle and making sure that they can see that there is something out there which they can aspire to. (Ronald, teacher)

For students living in communities with limited infrastructure and local employment opportunities, access to university can be severely curtailed. Types of industry and the restricted availability of skilled work often mean that young people follow traditional trade pathways or follow in the footsteps of peers:

They’ll probably just go and get, like, a normal job, like – I don’t know. Probably most girls would probably be stay-at-home mums or might just work at KFC or McDonalds or, you know. And the boys might be working in surf shops. Well, that’s what people in my class say. (Zoey, student) 

Across rural, regional and remote communities, student aspirations are often seen to be similar or interchangeable in policy. Our work shows that student aspirations differ dramatically between such communities and are affected by population growth and decline, geographic and social isolation, commodity prices, global/national economies and climate change. 

Social, physical, and psychological boundaries are key challenges faced by young people in rural communities. Foremost is the difficulty of leaving a close-knit community:  

Distance. Scared – it’s a fear. One, they don’t feel comfortable going. Two, there’s no one holding their hand over there. Like, it’s a comfort thing … and [it’s] the same with going to TAFE or uni – it’s just that initial week of, ‘Oh my God, this place is scary’… So yeah, it’s just hard. (Wynona, teacher)

Advances in technology combined with economic fluctuations have resulted in changes to local employment opportunities and how students think about their post-school futures:

Instead of having one man who can do all of that, you have a machine now…Another reason a lot of the labour part has been cut, economically, is because you can’t survive on the prices that you had of yesteryear ... Instead of having five people, now you’ll have two. So that means that three jobs have gone … That has had an effect on the town. (Peter, community member) 

In other rural communities, lucrative financial opportunities afforded by the successful local economy are difficult to resist:

My brother … was offered a school-based traineeship as an electrician … Now he’s earning more money than me … So, when you’ve got opportunities like that, as if you’re not going to take it. Why would you go to uni when you can study here at TAFE, earn big money, especially during [harvest] season? They can earn up to two grand a week. Why would you go to uni? Do you know what I mean? (Kathleen, teacher) 

As Kathleen points out, in such communities the question for school leavers becomes not ‘which university’ to attend but rather ‘why would you go to university’?. Young people recognise that a variety of local post-school opportunities are within reach for motivated individuals. When there are viable post-school transitions into high-paying local employment, the relative value of a university education is called into question. 

Communities, like families, schools, and other institutions, clearly influence the aspirations of young people. Our research brings into sharp relief the reality that aspiring to higher education is far from straightforward for many young people. In most instances, students aspire primarily to careers they can see, directly drawing on experiences and knowledge from within their local community. In turn, how young people see and imagine higher education as either possible or impossible, desirable or undesirable, is fashioned in complex ways.

Recommendations for Careers Advisers:

  • Increase collaboration among community leaders, families, and teachers to provide exposure to a variety of post-school futures through both formal and informal events within the community.
  • Establish community-level scholarships to aid in the transition to VET or university. Community members and teachers could actively promote these scholarships across various channels within the community and work with young people to support their applications.
  • Identify and create work experience opportunities that facilitate access to role models and the opportunity to learn about different kinds of occupational futures.
  • Recognise the importance of providing part-time and casual work to young people during their formal schooling. Early exposure to work is critical in terms of young people feeling a sense of belonging in their communities.
  • Helping to facilitate casual employment when young people return from tertiary education during semester breaks can also alleviate some of the economic concerns associated with relocating to attend further education.
  • Consider how schools can function as “community hubs” to increase training opportunities for both young people and adults. For example, school facilities can be used to implement “taster” sessions for TAFE and university courses, and for community members to utilise internet access or videoconferencing facilities to complete courses via online mode with the support of peers.

Read more in our book Community matters: The complex links between community and young people’s aspiration for higher education.