Aiming High and Missing the Mark? Educational Choice, Dropout Risk, and Achievement in Upper Secondary Education among Children of Immigrants in Denmark

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This paper finds that high aspiration among young people from ethnic minority backgrounds can be a double-edged sword: it helps close the gap between these young people and their native-origin peers, but at the cost of higher drop-out rates.

The research looks at the choices made by Danish youngsters at the age of 16, when they must choose between an academic or a vocational route. Using data on almost 120,000 students born in 1994-95, it asks whether their choices are more ambitious than others’ and whether that is a reason for higher drop-out rates among those from ethnic minorities.

Both the paper’s hypotheses are found to be correct: these young people are more likely to choose an academic route over a vocational one, and are likely to make more ambitious choices once they have done that – for instance by choosing additional subjects such as further maths. But the fact that they choose an academic route even with lower levels of prior attainment than others does help to explain why more of them struggle: the drop-out rate from the academic stream is 11 per cent among children of Danish origin, but 16 per cent among the children of immigrants.

The solution is not simple – drop-out rates are also high among ethnic minority children who choose a vocational route. But the ambition of these young people is helping to close the ethnic attainment gap and should be harnessed as a resource for the future: with support such as mentoring and study cafes this group could advance the cause of integration for future generations.