The economics of higher education participation in Ireland: Essays on geographic accessibility and student preferences
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Higher education has a range of important benefits for individuals and societies. As a result, increased participation in higher education is a stated policy goal in many countries. Understanding the economics of higher education is valuable in attempting to address issues related to higher education participation. In this context, the objective of this thesis is to expand our understanding of the economics of higher education participation in Ireland, with a particular focus on issues relating to geographic accessibility and student preferences. Empirical studies investigating the factors influencing progression to higher education have identified geographic accessibility to higher education institutions (HEIs), through the associated transaction costs, as one important factor. Moreover, evidence from Ireland of ‘localised’ patterns of progression to higher education implies that proximity to a specific HEI is a key factor in a student’s decision to study there. Despite this, no comprehensive measure of geographic accessibility to higher education has been developed for Ireland to date. Thus, the first aim of this thesis is to present an analysis of the extent and nature of geographic accessibility to higher education in Ireland. To this end, a range of GIS techniques are employed, while enrolment and mobility rates are also analysed to explore the association between proximity to different types of HEIs and the type of education pursued by individuals. Spatially-based accessibility Gini indices are calculated to explore the likely implications of any inequalities in accessibility, while a detailed analysis of the impact of a recent proposed higher education reform on geographic accessibility to universities in Ireland is also presented. Other non-spatial factors are of course also likely to be important, both in the decision to progress to higher education and in a student’s choice of HEI. In order to understand what attributes of higher education provision are valued by students, the second aim of this thesis is to elicit student preferences for HEIs in Ireland using a discrete choice experiment methodology. To this end, a survey of 1,105 students in their final year of secondary school was conducted across 34 schools. In the analysis, a latent class model is first employed to model heterogeneity in preferences and willingness-to-pay (WTP) across both the attributes of HEIs and across socio-economic groups. Compensating surplus for bundles of HEI attributes is also estimated, which has not been done previously in the literature. This allows the welfare gain or loss from alternative HEIs to be isolated. To further the analysis of heterogeneity in preferences, this thesis also employs mixed logit and generalised multinomial logit (GMNL) models to provide an in-depth analysis of the scale and variation in WTP by region, academic ability and socio-economic status. In fact, this thesis makes a methodological contribution to the education economics literature as it represents the first empirical application of the GMNL model in the area. Examining this variation in WTP is useful to both policymakers and HEI managers, as it provides them with interpretable information on how much different students value the attributes of HEIs.
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