Slipping Past the Test: Heterogeneous Effects of Social Background in the Context of Inconsistent Selection Mechanisms in Higher Education
In this article, we analyze how the existence of alternative pathways to higher education, which implies different selection mechanisms, shapes social inequality in educational attainment. We focus on the Russian educational system, in which higher education can be accessed from academic and vocational tracks, but the rules of admission to higher education from these tracks are different. Access through the academic track is highly selective due to obligatory high-stakes testing, which determines secondary-school graduates’ eligibility to pursue higher education. The vocational track is generally less selective with regard to student intake and provides less restrictive access to higher education. We argue that this system has nuanced implications for social inequality. On one hand, transitions from vocational education to higher education can promote greater social mobility by offering an affordable and low-risk gateway to higher education for children from less-advantaged families. On the other hand, more-advantaged families might use the vocational track to higher education if their children face a high risk of failure in the more selective academic track. We test this conjecture and provide supporting evidence using data from the longitudinal survey Trajectories in Education and Careers.