What Biases Our Choice of a High School Track
ECONOMICS |

What Biases Our Choice of a High School Track

MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS PROGRESSIVELY CONCENTRATE THEIR INFORMATION COLLECTION IN A FEW, PREFERRED ALTERNATIVES, AND THE PATTERN OF INFORMATION ACQUISITION DEPENDS STRONGLY ON THEIR SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS, ACCORDING TO RESEARCH BY GIUSTINELLI AND PAVONI

Research by Bocconi scholars Pamela Giustinelli and Nicola Pavoni may help policy makers to reduce income inequality and skill mismatch in the labor market by identifying potential cognitive mistakes made by middle schoolers in the process of information acquisition that will lead them to choose their high school track.
 
In The Evolution of Awareness and Belief Ambiguity in the Process of High School Track Choice (Review of Economic Dynamics, Volume 25, April 2017, Pages 93-120, doi: 10.1016/j.red.2017.01.002), Giustinelli and Pavoni study the process of information acquisition relevant for the choice of high school track in Italy through a field survey of about 900 8th graders and their parents. The survey, from the start of the school year until the moment of choice, monitors the evolution of students’ awareness of the available tracks and their confidence regarding their beliefs about their likelihood of a regular high school path.
 
 

At the beginning of their last middle school year students are only partially aware of the choices available to them and have limited confidence in their estimates of the chances of successfully completing alternative high school paths. In the following months, students’ learning about the existing tracks is substantial, but not complete. And it is concentrated in their most preferred alternatives. In fact, different demographic and socioeconomic characteristics are associated to different initial conditions and learning patterns.
 
On average, about 45% of students claim to know any curriculum at school start. By the time of enrollment, this proportion rises to 62%. These figures, however, mask significant differences across students from different backgrounds and among curricula, as students learn more about the alternatives that are more relevant to them. This progressive concentration is even more apparent in the evolution of confidence, as students become more confident in their beliefs of successful graduation from the most preferred curricula and less confident about the remaining ones.
 
“We identify five main patterns of learning, related to five demographic and socio-economic characteristics: gender, grade average, mother’s education, father’s occupation, and country of birth”, Prof. Giustinelli says.
 
Female students display more knowledge than their male counterparts about general curricula throughout the decision process – but lower confidence in their beliefs about proficiency in high school.
 
High-grades students start with lower knowledge about non-general curricula and learn less across all tracks. On the other hand, while they start with lower confidence, they end up with greater confidence than their low-grades counterparts, at least about performance in general curricula.
 
Students with a more educated mother start with lower knowledge of non-general curricula, but close the gap and display the least concentrated learning process of all.
 
Students with a blue-collar father display the most focused learning pattern, concentrated in the non-general curricula.
 
Foreign-born students, too, focus on non-general curricula. However, while students with a blue-collar father tend to learn more about these curricula throughout the decision process, foreign-born students tend instead to unlearn about general curricula.
 
“Our analysis begins to inform policy makers by pointing to particular groups of families, where the process of information acquisition is likely to be particularly slow and biased”, Prof. Pavoni concludes.

by Fabio Todesco
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