Navigating post-school trajectories: A conceptual framework of key determinants and essential resources


A conceptual framework of key determinants and essential resources

Thanh Pham


The period from 18 to 25 years of age is a critical time for young people because they are between being adolescence and adulthood. During this period, individuals experience many changes and choices such as leaving high school, going to university, forming more stable relationships, tackling unemployment, looking for a new job, leaving home and planning to start a family. Amongst these changes, transition into university and college is an important event because 65% of school leavers are expected to attend university (Baik, Naylor & Arkoudis, 2015). Although school-to- university transition experiences have been improved over the last decades, students still need to be better supported so that they could have more positive transition experiences (Baik et al., 2015).

There have been different perspectives exploring student experiences in their transitions to tertiaiy education. In general, researchers using perspectives from education, psychology, social work and cultural studies have largely focused on examining factors related to students’ circumstances such as their academic performance, family background, and personal qualities including mental and physical conditions (Bowers, 2010; Cairns, Cairns & Neckerman, 1989; Down, Smyth & Robinson, 2018; Serbin, Temcheff, Coopennan, Stack, Ledingham & Schwartzman, 2010). Differently, research underpinned by sociology and economics perspectives has widely examined the connection between schools and the larger context, e.g. how the labour market and globalisation such as the global recession and economic crisis influence schools to prepare for the student transition process (Ashton & Green, 1996; Raffe, 2008; Smyth, Gangl, Raffe, Hannan & McCoy, 2001; Те Riele, 2011). Previous research has provided useful insights into various aspects of student transition experiences but individual studies have often failed to provide a complete picture of the matter. This chapter extends the discussion about determinants of students’ post-school trajectories that have been mapped out in Chapter 2. The discussion will be based on the framework captured in Figure 3.1 below.

Macro level

Factors at the macro level have significant impacts on actions of various stakeholders in what they can do and how they could act when preparing students for post-school transitions. Therefore, it is important to examine factors at this level.


There has been a plethora of policies concerned with the senior schooling phase aiming to ensure students secure successful transitions from school to either employment or further education. In general, policies tend to support the assumptions that propose the relationship between educational attainment and economic productivity (Wolf, 2004). Therefore, students are required to complete at least the senior schooling level and then participate in university or vocational programmes after completing schooling education (Ryan, Johnson & Billett, 2012). To prepare for post-school pathways, it is very common that students are required to choose their educational pathways and career options at their middle schooling. More than a decade ago, OECD (2009) advocated this direction by stating that

the chances of solid transition outcomes are higher where young people have available learning pathways and qualification frameworks that are clearly defined, well organised and open, designed and developed in a lifelong learning perspective, with effective connections to post- school destinations, whether work or further study.

(p. 36-37)

Determinants of students’ post-school trajectories

FIGURE 3.1 Determinants of students’ post-school trajectories

In Australia, policy-makers have shown their strong enthusiasm towards the division of such linear educational pathways. This advocation is evidenced in various policies. For instance, Queensland the Smart State - Education and Training Reforms for the Future (ETRF) (The State of Queensland, 2002) proposes that ‘to compete in today’s world, young Queenslanders need exciting and flexible pathways from school to work, training or further education’ (The State of Queensland, 2002, p. 3). Subsequently, middle year students are often divided into two groups as academic and non-academic students and then required to choose between academically oriented and vocationally oriented courses.

Such a division can stimulate students to evaluate their early career goals and then develop motivation and the sense of responsibility and accountability towards the chosen prospects. However, research has found individuals are likely to persist with their initial choice if they have a real interest in it; by contrast, they tend to change their career pathways when they make their career decisions at a young age, or when they are not well consulted and put under parental pressure (e.g. Gubler, Bienrann & Herzog, 2017; Trusty, Robinson, Plata & Ng, 2000; Wille, De Fruyt & Feys, 2013). Therefore, transitions should not be seen as a linear and static phenomenon but protracted, problematic, unstable and transitory in nature (Ball, Maguire & Macrae, 2000; Savelsberg, 2010). In fact, many young people experience their transitions as ‘complex and interconnected, as involving false starts and redefined possibilities’ (Looker & Dwyer, 1998, p. 17).

Besides, policies supporting national and international rankings like NAPLAN and Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) in Australia and PISS A in many advanced countries have both direct and indirect impacts on students’ experiences on their transition to colleges and universities. To win the ranking games, schools often distinguish different types of students early so that they can invest in preparing academically-oriented students for their competition on these tests and students labelled as ‘less academically capable’ are steered to participate in vocational programs. Such static and linear separation demotivates schools and teachers to make an effort to support students to follow the pathway that they are interested in but seen as ‘unsuitable’. Consequently, many students especially those in disadvantaged groups are not given adequate support and guidance to engage and expand learning in their preferred areas in a meaningful way and then become disengaged even at their post-study programmes if they could enter. Connell (1993), Silfver, Sjoberg and Bagger (2016) and Teese and Polesel (2003) claimed that many schools are functioning more as sifting and sorting machines than places of education and students are seen as pawns in the rankings and league tables game (cited in Down et al„ 2018).

To support disadvantaged students, governments have introduced several schemes to help low SES students transit into universities (e.g. the higher education contribution scheme (HECS) in Australia). However, despite such efforts, the proportion of low SES students in higher education still requires improvement. In Australia, low SES students had an attrition rate of 18% in higher education, compared to high SES students who had an attrition rate of 13% (Department of

Education and Training, 2017). Only 19.8% of total university applications came from low-SES backgrounds and a large number were likely to drop out of university (DET, 2017). Similarly, students from rural and remote areas have been found to face more challenges in comparison to their metropolitan counterparts. These students are ‘40 percent less likely to gain a higher-level tertiary education qualification and less than half as likely to gain a bachelor and above qualification’ (Commonwealth of Australia, 2019, p. 11). The government has launched policies such as the National Regional, Rural and Remote Tertiary Education Strategy to address the challenges experienced by rural and remote students within tertiary education. One of the main goals of these policies is to recommend the development of career advice in rural schools to increase rural students’ aspirations (Commonwealth of Australia, 2019).

Cultural values and beliefs in the society

Student experiences in transitions to post-school programmes are also determined by cultural values and beliefs practised in a society. For instance, girls’ opportunities for higher education have been heavily influenced by patriarchal cultural values which still exist in many societies (Pham, 2007; Vu, 2018). These values have hierarchical effects in deciding responsibilities of men and women with instrumental and public roles explicitly and implicitly assigned to men and nurturing and private roles literally and publicly labelled as ‘jobs of women’. These views have become unwritten laws, so men’s education and career advancement are often prioritised over those of women (Pham, 2007, 2014). This leads to a problem that girls are not supported to make an effort to enter university but willing to do certificates to apply for low-paid work in clerical, sales and services so that they can have more time for family commitments.

There also exists a kind of mythical thinking, which has its roots in deep forms of racism, classism and misogyny (Down et al., 2018; McLeod & Yates, 2006; Rob & Wyn, 2012). Such perception defines students from poor and marginalised families as ‘unfit’ and failing to fit the dominant academic storyline, so they only suit manual or unskilled work. Down et al. (2018) unpacked a long-existing myth that perceives that students from some backgrounds are deemed worthier than others. These preferable students are often more likely to take high-paying and rewarding kinds of work and people naturally accept this ‘fact’. For instance, in Australia there is a long legacy of the working class being closely associated with notions of educational deficiency and, if educable at all, then at best only through pathways of vocational training (Down et al., 2018). Snee and Devine (2014) discussed their students’ school-to-university experiences as an example to illustrate this legacy. They found that working-class children naturally accepted to go into the workforce after completing schooling education as a norm followed by their parents and people in their community. Down et al. (2018) found that such kind of perception appears natural, common sense and universally accepted. It is not easy to change this mentality because the concept of class is perpetuated through the efforts of families, schools and young people themselves to forge identities of young people (McLeod & Yates, 2006; Rob & Wyn, 2012).


Several stakeholders at this stage could enact influences on students’ transitional experiences. Research has reported various stakeholders who have made significant impacts on determining how students navigate their transitional phases. These include parents, schools, teachers and partnerships between schools and universities/vocational institutions. Within the scope of this chapter, the section below discusses the role of parents and schools in supporting and hindering students’ transition experiences.

Parent perspective and support

Various studies have evidenced that parents impact students’ study and career paths in both visible and invisible ways (Gubler, Biemann & Herzog, 2017; Yee, Su, Kim & Yancura, 2009; Wille, De Fruyt & Feys, 2013). In fact, students’ study and career paths have been found to be largely determined by their parents’ perceptions, social networks and cultural resources (Fleming & Grace, 2014; Wilson, Dasho, Martin, Wallerstein, Wang & Minkler, 2016). For instance, families who are unfamiliar with higher education may not understand the importance of further education for their child, so tend not to encourage their children to pursue higher educational choices but support them to remain in the community to support their families (Abbott-Chapman, 2011; Fleming & Grace, 2017). Down et al. (2018) also found that middle-class students were more advantaged during the preparation process because they were often financially secure and tended to receive insightful advice of their parents or people in their parents’ networks about their chosen study areas, entry requirements of the chosen course and how to focus on preparing these requirements early.

In their study, Down et al. (2018) reported several narratives of students who could not understand why they sensed that they were ‘not doing well’ at school and felt they did not suit professionally oriented work but suited ‘more hands on’ subjects and types of jobs. The reason was that when these children observed and experienced their parents’ manual jobs, they obtained rich insights into these types of jobs and then became more likely to choose vocational education paths so that they could have jobs similar to those of their parents. Bourdieu (1986) calls these family assets and dispositions ‘cultural capital’ which students can draw on explicitly and implicitly in their transitions. Snee and Devine (2014) and Lareau (2000) provided further evidence about middle-class students being often more prepared and confident about their transitions because their parents are more likely to be directly involved in their children’s education and career choices. More importantly, middle-class parents are more likely to be able to call on practices that align with and make use of their children’s strengths and skills. Lareau (2003) described these cultural logics as ‘concerted cultivation’ whereby middle-class families are able to call on child-rearing practices which actively foster their ‘children’s talents, opinions, and skills’ (p. 238). Besides, middle-class parents take more responsibilities in preparing and managing their children’s study and career decisions and are more critical of the role of schools. In contrast, working-class parents are more inclined to hand over responsibility to professionals and when they did try to intervene, they felt far less comfortable and capable (Lareau, 2000, p. 239).

Curriculum and school division

Selecting schools has become a priority of parents in many countries because good schools build a foundation enabling students to enter university which then largely determines employment opportunities for young people - a perspective supported by so-called credential theories that argue that formal schooling is positively linked to socio-economic success (Collins, 1971; Parkin, 1979; Murphy, 1988). In many countries, selective private schools have become a preferred option of parents and students for several reasons including their good services, rich resources, updated curricula and high-quality teaching staff. An important feature of private schools that appeals to financially affordable parents is their success in preparing students for prestigious universities which then enable students to dominate pathways to becoming elite professionals (Marks, 2004; Teese, 2007; Teese & Polesel, 2003). This happens because private schools have the ability to design their own curricula, so often focus resource usage and teaching time to activities geared to success within the most prestigious subjects in the curriculum (Teese, 2007, p. 48). Academic curricula with selective subjects that are counted in tertiary entry are often prioritised and highlighted at these schools. As a result, students in this sector can read the tertiary entry script early and become more prepared compared to their counterparts at public schools where planned and prescribed curricula are mandated.

Besides, how curricula are designed and structured has also been found to influence students’ transition experiences. As discussed above, institutions and policy-makers have placed much attention on the role of education in strengthening the economic power of a nation. As a result, as evidenced by Teese (2000), subjects that are believed to better support the economic power like science, mathematics and arts are prioritised for university entrance and employment selection. Teese (2000) further claimed that this priority advantages students who have intellectual abilities and have ‘capacity for abstraction, logic and reasoning abilities, sophisticated language and communication skills, creativity, imagination and the rest’ (cited in Hay & Sim, 2012, p. 183). These students often belong to middle-class because these capacities are often not articulated from schools but also from private tutoring outside the school and only middle-class parents afford private tutoring. Teese (2000) found that newer subjects like vocational subjects and humanities added to the curriculum aim to cater for increasing numbers of students with diverse academic abilities and are believed to be more suitable for working-class students who may perceive them as less demanding or more immediately relevant to the world of work. Similar to schools, universities place great emphasis on academic performance, so those students who are not prepared to do well in subjects counted in ATAR were found to have more difficulties with their studies, and more likely to have considered deferring or withdrawing (26%, compared to 17% of high ATAR students) (Baik et al., 2015).


Schools and universities are sites where students’ learning is determined not only by factors at the macro and meso levels and academic capacities as discussed above but also by elements associated to their personal circumstances like social ties (Ball & Vincent, 1998; Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2007; Pham, 2014; Watt & Badger, 2009), cultural capital (e.g., Kuh, Kinzie, Schuh & Whitt, 2005; Heath, Fuller & Johnston 2010; Snee & Devine, 2014), psychological capacities (Anderson, Delfabbro, Dollard, Metzer, Trainor & Winefield, 2005; Bramston & Patrick, 2007; Stallman, 2010) and agentic capital (Holland, Reynolds & Weller, 2007; Snee & Devine, 2014). Within the scope of this chapter, the following sections focus on discussing how social and agentic capital impacts students’ experiences in transitions from schools to colleges and universities. These are two areas still under researched in the current literature.

Social capital

A growing body of research has been conducted about the role of social capital in graduates’ education-to-work transitions (Pham, 2020; Pham, Tomlinson & Thompson, 2019; Tomlinson, 2017), migrants’ lives (Cui, 2012; Popadiuk & Arthur, 2014; Ryan, Sales, Tilki & Siara, 2008; Ryan, 2011) and students’ learning and transition experiences (Coleman, 1988; Heath, Fuller & Johnston, 2010). For instance, evidence has been found about the connections between student experiences at universities and relationships and networks articulated from family, peers, universities and social organisations (Bargh, McKenna & Fitz- simons, 2002; Helliwell & Putnam, 2004; Klingensmith, 2010). In fact, when students reported their difficult experiences in the college transition, they almost always indicated that they were disappointed in their friendships and social interactions. Verschuur, Eurelings-Bonteckoe and Spinhoven (2004) and Watt and Badger (2009) found that when students entered colleges and universities, they lost what Ellison et al. (2007) call ‘bonding social capital’. These bonding ties refer to extremely close and emotional social relationships and networks articulated from family and peers. The loss of these relationships can cause anxiety, lack of self-esteem and physical effects like headaches and stomach aches (Helliwell & Putnam, 2004; Verschuur, Eurelings-Bonteckoe & Spinhoven, 2004; Watt & Badger, 2009).

To adapt to university life, Ellison et al. (2007) and Swenson, Nordstrom and Heister (2008) advised that students needed to develop different types of social networks at different stages of their university life. It is essential for them to keep connections with high school friends during the first few weeks after entering colleges and universities because such connections could give them emotional and social support. However, if students have strong attachments to these connections, they could face several challenges including being reluctant to develop new friends, use social support systems and actively participate in their studies (Ball, Maguire & Macrae, 2000; Brooks, 2005; Reay, David & Ball, 2005). Ishler (2004) found that many students wanted to change their college so that they could be close to their high school friends or drop out of college completely. Therefore, Paul and Brier (2001), Balague and Fayon (2010) and Putnam (2000) emphasised the need for students to gradually develop ‘bridging’ social capital. This capital refers to relationships with new friends in the new environment within a few weeks of entering university. Such kind of capital facilitates the progression to university because it helps students develop a sense of belonging and then develop greater levels of self-esteem, optimism and control.

It is noted that Bourdieu (1986) perceived social capital as relational and differentially distributed among social groups, resulting in the reproduction of advantage (Ball, 2003). Class reproduction could happen consciously and unconsciously. Consciously, as discussed above, various studies have proved how middle-class students are supported to enter higher education, prestigious institutions and professional careers based on their parents’ networks. Down et al. (2018) stated that middle-class children were more literate about their educational and job choices because they were provided with valuable first-hand informal information that Ball and Vincent (1998) defined as 'hot knowledge’.

Unconsciously, Bourdieu claimed that people’s action is guided by habitus - a system of cognitive schemata and a set of bodily dispositions that function as ‘an internal law relaying the continuous exercise of the lay of external necessities ... without being able to give them a rational basis’ (Bourdieu, 1977, p. 82). Habitus is a ‘deeply ingrained system of perspectives, experiences, and dispositions that families share’ (Reay, David & Ball, 2005, p. 61) and is ‘forged through ongoing and largely unconscious internationalisation of external structures in the field’ (Mu, 2020). This perception drives people to act in ways that are reasonable and acceptable for ‘people like us’ (Snee & Devine, 2014). This means that people with whom students socialise can influence their thinking about educational and job choices and expectations that suit the ‘norm’ for their peers (Brooks, 2005; Foskett & Hemsley-Brown, 2001). For instance, observing parents’ professions and siblings’ schooling can make students build confidence in making education choices and an awareness of facilitating subjects for university. These experiences could influence students to choose the same type of profession and school. Therefore, brothers and sisters could provide valuable information and examples of potential routes and pathways if parents’ knowledge and experiences are limited (Snee & Devine, 2014).

A notable finding in the literature regarding the transition to tertiary education is that students from different socio-cultural backgrounds have diverse experiences and differing levels of success with any transition (Crockett, Shanahan & Jackson- Newsom, 2000). The disruptions to different types of social bonds with friends, family and the wider community have been found as a factor contributing to more difficulties of disadvantaged students (Wilson, Greenacre, Pignata & Winefield, 2016). This is mainly because friendships often fail to be maintained as the proximity of friends changes and individuals prioritise friends who reside in closer proximity (Buote et al., 2007; Cassidy, 2004; Chan & Poulin, 2007; Oswald & Clark, 2003).

Exercising agency as a tool to navigate transitions

As discussed above, it has been widely acknowledged that student transitions are determined by a wide range of factors at different levels. However, research about students’ agency has found that students are not only passive receivers of external influences but have capacities, knowledge and skills to negotiate their transitions. Sen (1993) unpacked the negotiation process between resources and capacities and noted that those students with agentic capacities could successfully convert resources into capabilities. For instance, various research studies have evidenced how graduates developed and utilised their ‘agentic capital’ to navigate the host labour market in their education-to-work transitions (e.g. Bandura, 1997; Crockett, 2002; Goller, 2017; Pham et ah, 2019; Pham & Saito, 2019). These authors pointed out that the role of personal agency is crucially important to graduates’ employability trajectories because it helps individuals strive towards achieving their personal goals, to be able to influence and make changes in their lives, bring about preferred and sought-after outcomes, and to navigate barriers in the labour market.

There has been plenty of evidence about students’ education-to-work transition experiences but little has been known about how young people negotiate their transitions like choosing and making decisions about the destination they prefer, their subjects of interest and the institutions they wish to attend. Hodkinson, Sparkes and Hodkinson (1996) and Holland, Reynolds and Weller (2007) and Snee and Devine (2014) are a few studies that have found students as active agents who could draw on their various resources to achieve their preferable destinations. Actions taken by students in these studies proved how they could develop and utilise their ‘agentic capital’ in various ways. For instance, in their study, Down et al. (2018) reported a number of disadvantaged students including low SES and indigenous students whose school and teachers doubted their ability to attend university. However, they did not give up but persistently pursued their dreams by taking extra certificates and articulating knowledge by joining extra-curricular activities in their community. Snee and Devine (2014) also reported how some students could use their social networks to negotiate their transition pathways. Specifically, despite gaining an unsatisfactory academic record, these students still maintained their ambition to undertake higher education and refused to seek employment.

They, therefore, looked for advice of friends, siblings and relatives and other social ties to identify alternative training and education opportunities. Some showed courage in opposing their ‘fate’ by saying ‘no’ to their parents’ advice about entering the labour force after completing high school, a standard norm of people in their social class.

This negotiation process demonstrates the capacity to use psychological capital to mobilise human capital that Pham and Jackson (2020) discussed in their research about graduates’ employability negotiation. Actions taken by these students oppose common discussion of the mainstream media and conservative politicians who portray working-class and disadvantaged students as ‘having little drive, ambition or willingness to contribute to the betterment of themselves or society’ (Down et al., 2018, p. 103). A notable finding reported in several studies (e.g. Snee & Devine, 2014; Pham et al., 2019; Pham & Saito, 2019) was that many disadvantaged students and graduates including working-class and international students showed strong capacities to exercise agency in using their resources compared to more advantaged peers. Baik et al. (2015) also evidenced low SES students showed stronger purpose in enrolling in university and pursuing a university degree. One of the reasons explaining strong motivation and agency of disadvantaged students was that their parents have little knowledge and experiences to intervene in their education and career choices. These students are, therefore, under greater pressures to find ways to navigate their studying journeys by themselves.


Today’s neoliberal economies have viewed that education needs to produce ‘work- ready’ graduates who have strong human capital and can perform the jobs required by the labour market. This perspective perceives students and graduates as objects who need to be trained and educated to absorb and digest skills and dispositions required by institutions and employers. Therefore, policy-makers have launched various initiatives to mandate schools to train and direct students to follow fixed education pathways that are largely dependent on the evaluation of their academic performance. Regardless of whether students follow academically- or vocationally- oriented pathways, they tend to be filled with the concept that higher education could lead to employment opportunities and a better life. However, this chapter has unpacked that this is a false assumption. Students’ education choices and experiences in a new educational setting are actually detennined by a wide range of factors at various levels including cultural values and beliefs practiced in society, school system, curriculum structure, parents’ perceptions and support and non- academic resources such as social ties, cultural understanding and resilience. When students do not have smooth and successful transition experiences, it might not be because of their weak academic capacities but the lack of these resources. To better prepare students for their post-school transitions, there is a need for better collaboration of stakeholders at various levels. Schools need to further develop collaboration with other stakeholders especially parents and to listen to students’ needs and interests so that students can feel supported and respected both inside and outside the classrooms.


  • 1. What are other factors at each level discussed in this chapter that can determine students' transitions?
  • 2. What would be new education transition challenges facing students after the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • 3. Discuss some examples about how your schools could have done better to support students to transit to the next destination.
  • 4. How does the significance of various forms of capital vary at different schooling levels?
  • 5. How have you developed and utilised your capitals when you started tertiary education?


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