The Missing Middle – a comparative study of transitions among low achievers from academic upper secondary school

Average achievers, defined as students who complete an academic qualification in upper secondary education, but do not perform particularly well, are an overlooked group in research on transitions. While numerous studies have focused on either dropouts and high achievers, little is known of the aspirations, motivations, and outcomes of students in the middle of the distribution. The trajectories and outcomes of this group are likely to be highly heterogeneous. On completion of upper secondary education, these students have acquired generic skills which may better qualify them for higher education (HE) than for work, but they do not necessarily move on to college or university. Their trajectories are also likely to be particularly sensitive to labour market cycles and technological shifts. Since they constitute a considerable number of young people, there is a need of research that studies the transitions and outcomes of these ‘ordinary’ students. The aim of this project is to address this research gap.

This project investigates career patterns among young people who obtain an academic qualification in upper secondary education, but with comparably low grades, in the lower half of the distribution. We reference this key group, constituting over a third of all students in academic tracks, as Completers with Low Academic Achievements (CLAA).

Research questions

The overarching research question the project will answers is the following:

How can we understand the trajectories from school to work or HE for CLAA compared to other groups of students?

This is done through more specific research questions which define and steer the four work packages (WP) that structure the project:

  1. How are low performing students in academic tracks developing and expressing their visions of future careers? How are these visions for the future shaped by class, gender and country of residence? (WP1)
  2. Are CLAA a group of potential ‘losers’ in changing labour markets, or are they actually successful (in either getting a job or a HE-degree), despite their modest grades? (WP2)
  3. To what extent can the shaping of young peoples’ trajectories be interpreted as differences and similarities in sociohistorical, institutional and cultural structures in the cities and countries where they live? (WP3)
  4. To what extent does a ‘make up’ year for young people originating in vocational tracks but completing an academic qualification, turn out to include or exclude them in HE and in the labour market? (WP4)
  5. What are the consequences of changing economic conditions on young peoples’ trajectories? (WP1, 2, 3)

Work packages (WP)

The project consists of four work packages: One purely based on qualitative methods using longitudinal interviews, and two quantitative work packages, one using survey data and one using register data. The last work package combines qualitative data and register data. Figure 1 illustrates the four work packages, and the overarching questions they aim at answering.

Figure 1: Overview of the project’s focus, scope and approach

WP1 – CLAA’s emerging visions and narratives for future careers

Through the use of an in-depth, longitudinal approach, the ways students perceive and anticipate their future career opportunities and pathways is investigated using multiple interviews. The prime focus is on how CLAA form their conceptions of labour market careers. The literature emphasises that it has become increasingly difficult to manage the ‘project of the self’ in contemporary modernity. Today, the trend towards less standardised, unpredictable, prolonged, and postponed transitions is widely accepted within the field of youth research. Findings regarding these patterns in students’ narratives and plans will inform an analysis of national institutional conditions, necessary for designing better support systems around transitions for CLAA. Students are interviewed at the start and the end of their last year in school (Vg3), and then again one-year post Vg3 completion. Wp1 will also draw on international collaboration with the ISCY-network.

WP2 – Tracing transitions from upper secondary school into HE and work: key patterns over time

WP2 studies the trajectories of CLAA, using administrative registry data for several cohorts. This allows us to trace educational and labour market patterns over several years and investigate if the opportunities and career-paths for this group of students have changed over time. The GPA of these students only make them eligible for a limited number of programmes, as access to HE in Norway is solely based on grades. This raises a question about whether students use the academic qualification they have gained to access HE, or if they choose to get a job? If they start working, is this a temporary or a more permanent state? The scope of opportunities for this group of students may have narrowed over time, as the education system has expanded, more occupations demand HE, many degree programmes demand increasingly higher grade-scores to enter, and many un-skilled jobs have been digitalized.

WP3 – Longitudinal trajectories of city youth in four countries: investigating evolving aspirations for CLAA

This WP draws on the ISCY network to access and analyse comparative survey panel data from students about anticipated and actual transitions on finishing secondary education in Bergen, Barcelona, Ghent and Reykjavik. The data allow for sophisticated analyses of transitions from school to further education or work for CLAA facing largely different opportunities across the cities, depending on national educational structures, labour markets and welfare regimes.

WP4 – The ‘make up’ year: A dead end, or detour to academic qualification?

This WP focuses on students who after two years in a vocational programme in upper secondary education switch to a supplementary (‘make up’) year to acquire the general academic qualification required for HE access (“påbygg” in Norwegian). The ‘make up’ year, which grants an academic qualification upon completion, has the effect of delaying tracking and stratification in the school system and keeps the door open to HE, or at least to the 60 percent or so of all HE programmes that do not have specific entrance requirements. Starting vocational education with the intention of going on to complete the academic diploma has been a route more frequently found among girls who state they are not motivated to move directly to academic programmes. There is a need to better understand the motives for work and education among these less-academically oriented students. A key issue is whether this path through upper secondary school increases or decreases aspirations for HE, or for vocational education.


The project will access several existing data sources and link these together with new data and analyses focusing on the CLAA and their further transitions. Through continuing collaboration and further developing the ISCY-network, we can utilise comparative, longitudinal survey data as part of a multi-method design. This will also involve new qualitative data from four countries, and detailed Norwegian administrative registry data for several cohorts over time.

For more information on the use of Norwegian register data, please take a look here (in Norwegian).

Partners and international collaboration

The Missing Middle is a collaboration between NIFU and Centre for the Study of Professions (SPS) at Oslo Metropolitan University (OsloMet). Additionally, the project draws on a well-established research network, the International Study of City Youth (ISCY), as two of the WPs will have direct collaboration with researchers in Barcelona, Ghent, Reykjavik and Turku.

Core research group

Project leader NIFU:

Project members NIFU:

  • Berit Lødding, Senior Researcher
  • Marianne Takvam Kindt, Senior Researcher
  • Otto Sevaldson Lillebø, Senior Researcher
  • Asgeir Skålholt, Researcher

Project members SPS, OsloMet:

  • Thea Bertnes Strømme, Researcher
  • Håvard Helland, Professor

Project time frame





project details

project number2511639
project leaderElisabeth Hovdhaugen
project coworkersMarianne Takvam Kindt, Otto Sevaldson Lillebø, Berit Lødding, Asgeir Skålholt
project period01.01.2021  -  30.06.2026

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