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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From level to field : factors influencing student choice of undergraduate field of study Breton-Skagen, Camille


As universities face unprecedented numbers of applicants, competition for access to the more prestigious fields of higher education has become increasingly important. This study focuses on “what one studies” rather than “where one studies” based on how a student’s family background (as measured both by socioeconomic status and ethnicity) and gender influence their choice of undergraduate field of study. This paper addresses two main theoretical traditions: the “liberated” theory and Effectively Maintained Inequality (EMI). Whereas the latter suggests that social background may actually become more important for later transitions than for earlier ones, the “liberated” theory emphasizes that as children age, they become more independent of parents and therefore social background effects are lower for later transitions and less likely to impact student’s choice of field. The data for this study are drawn from Statistics Canada’s National Graduate Survey (NGS) of 2007 (class of 2005) and 2013 (class of 2009-2010). I conduct logistic and OLS regressions in order to assess the influence of a variety of independent variables, such as socioeconomic status, on the dependent variable “Field of study”, measured using 3 types of dichotomous codings: cultural fields, professional fields, and hard sciences, as well as the categorical coding of field by average income. Findings are not in keeping with the EMI theory, but rather lean towards a more “liberated” theory of choice of undergraduate field of study. Indeed, instead of maintaining the intergenerational transmission of status, as EMI predicts, field of study may well weaken the disadvantageous effect of family background, thereby providing a means for upward social mobility for lower SES students.

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