Bailey, Wayne (2015) Individual choices? Complex attitudes to debt and its continuing influence on HE participation decisions. In: SCUTREA 2015, 7th - 9th July 2015, Leeds. (Unpublished)

This paper explores why a group of young adults with level 3 qualifications, living within traditionally working-class communities, choose not to participate in HE and the influence that finance has on such decisions. There has been a great deal written about debt and debt aversion and the question of whether debt plays an important role in individuals’ choices when deciding whether to attend university. There appears to be equivocal evidence of the impact of debt on HE participation decisions. The costs of participation and financial concerns have been considered by many researchers including Callender (2003) and Watts (2006). This paper discusses how a general fear of debt, in conjunction with an expectation that the costs associated with HE participation should lead to a guaranteed job, influences decision making. It indicates complex attitudes towards debt and a particular set of beliefs and values that relate to the financing of HE. In considering attitudes to debt, this paper also examines the influence of intergenerational learning, in shaping attitudes to debt. In influencing decision making, the importance of ongoing, multigenerational exchanges, across life courses, located in places and expressed through practices is considered (Mannion, Adey and Lynch 2010; Manion, 2012). The research proposes that any ‘strategies of actions’ devised by the young adults were about making money and not owing money and that, at times, the amount of debt appeared to be inconsequential; being in debt was just not the accepted way of doing things. Significantly, evidence suggests that students from working-class backgrounds are more likely to be averse to being in debt and reluctant to accept the debt attached to being a student. Moreover, indebtedness is viewed as a major risk by many working-class young adults and their families. In spite of the perceived value of HE, many young working-class adults consider participation in HE in terms of risks, costs and benefits (Callender, 2003). However, in conjunction with a general fear of debt linked to the young adults attitudes towards the costs and benefits of HE, subtle and hidden disadvantages that moved beyond the question of whether they should participate in HE are also discussed. This research indicates that debt alone was not the main consideration; HE was a guaranteed cost, without a guaranteed benefit. Unless there was a guaranteed extrinsic reward, specifically employment related, there was no motivation to participate in HE. Findings are drawn from a set of semi-structured interviews with 36 young adults and adapts a Bourdieuian framework. This paper considers the subjective points of view of the young adults, with respect to their non-participation, pertaining to debt. It also pays attention to factors which appeared to have shaped and moulded decisions and in doing so, emphasises the complex correlations between individuals and structures (Herzberg, 2006). A particularly complex attitude to debt was highlighted. Not incurring debt appeared to be a cultural rule, particularly when there was no guaranteed financial and employment related benefit to participation. This paper argues that similar outlooks, backgrounds, interests, lifestyles and opportunities resulted in the adoption of shared practices, common patterns of reactions and accepted ways of doing things when it came to debt. This paper enhances our understanding of the complex, yet subtle influence of debt and how this influence young adults choice not to participate in HE.

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