The concept of ‘aspiration-raising’ has been ubiquitous in the discussion of differential rates of participation in higher education in England for many years. Potential students from disadvantaged backgrounds are constructed as setting their sights too low and therefore not considering higher education or ignoring elite universities that they could access. However, it is increasingly understood that aspiration-raising is unable to explain patterns of participation and that it risks ‘blaming the victim’ by failing to appreciate the structural constraints forged through their sociocultural context. The purpose of this paper is to present an alternative lens in the form of ‘possible selves’. This is drawn from the discipline of psychology and aims to explain how we all conceive and develop visions of ourselves in future states. These images create a motivational impetus for actions in the present in order to achieve a like-to-be self—or evade a like-to-avoid self. Notably, the theory takes specific account of the individual’s expectations and the importance of having a clear pathway towards a long-term destination. This paper provides an overview of the foundational theory and empirical evidence for a general readership, before presenting a new conceptual model focused on access to higher education. This is then used to explore the principles that might underpin interventions to support participation from disadvantaged groups within highly stratified systems, as well as suggesting a new policy agenda and priorities for future research.
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