This national study compares the social and gender characteristics of an earlier group of 1551 students in higher-education programs in 1987 and 1990 with the national study group of 2295 students sampled in 1995. Using a specially constructed socio-economic variable for comparison, the analyses demonstrated a significant difference in the socio-economic level of the household for the female but not the male group. There was a significant difference in the proportion of males entering nursing between the earlier and latter groups. Further, in the latter group, these males were more likely to enter nursing programs directly from school. Members of the female group in the latter sample were more likely to have attended a school in a less populated area, come from households with a reduced family size, have mothers who were earning an income and have mothers who had achieved a higher level of education than was found in the earlier group. Logic analysis revealed that there was a significant interaction between the household variables, socio-economic status, number of siblings and income received by the mother of the respondents in the early and latter groups for females but not for males. This interaction for the female group, plus the finding that members of the latter group were more likely than other university students to defer their Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS) payments, suggests that if politicians were to make changes to the HECS it may affect the delicate social balance currently achieved in nursing recruitment in Australia. Copyright © 1996 Royal College of Nursing, Australia. Published by Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.