Formal differentiation at upper secondary education in Finland: subject-level choices and stratified pathways to socio-economic status and unemployment

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This paper looks at how Finnish students’ track placement at upper secondary school is associated with their later-life socio-economic status and probability of unemployment using high-quality full population register data.

The study finds that choosing advanced maths – in a system where students are given the freedom to make their own subject-level decisions – leads to higher socio-economic status compared to those with a general upper secondary qualification without advanced maths regardless of social background, gender or previous school performance. The researchers argue that this is mostly due to differences in further educational degrees at tertiary level between these two groups.

The study also compares labour market outcomes between those with a vocational and a general upper secondary qualification. This research shows that vocational qualification protects against unemployment but leads to lower socio-economic status compared to general upper secondary qualification. To the researchers’ surprise, none of the further degrees after upper secondary education provided additional protection against unemployment.

The study is particularly policy-relevant in Finland, which is making entry to upper secondary education compulsory and is renewing its higher education intake with extra emphasis on choosing advanced maths. Further research should focus on the possible effect of these changes on social inequality, the researchers conclude.

This is part of a special issue prepared by the LIFETRACK project. Other articles of this special issue can be found here.