New data on the close link between SES and university attendance

I’ve criticised the government’s exclusive focus on attracting more university students from the lowest 25% of geographic areas, as measured by an index of education and occupation. I had found several data sources suggesting that educational achievement in the second-lowest quartile wasn’t much better than in the lowest quartile.

Today the ABS released an update to its online 2011 census package that lets us classify students according to their socioeconomic status ($$$ if you want access). I calculated university attendance rates for 20-24 year olds by SES deciles, with one the lowest and ten the highest.

I think my general point stands: there are low rates of university attendance well above the lowest 25%. Someone in the 4th decile is well above the lowest 25%, but still only has a third of the likelihood of attending university as someone in the top 10%. Even removing early school leavers from the analysis, their chances of attending university are still less than half those of someone in the top 10%.* We need a re-investigation of the role poor school results versus other factors play in this outcome.

uni attend 20-24 take 2

However, the data is less lumpy than I expected. There is the upper middle class at deciles nine and ten with high rates of education and professional employment which is quite different from the rest of the population. But below that attendance rates do slowly but steadily increase as people move up the SES spectrum, without the large and weakly-differentiated lowest 50% I expected from other sources.

* The decile differences are somewhat exaggerated due to students who move from low SES areas, especially in regional areas, to live near universities which are in high SES areas.

What I have been reading

Some time travelling last month gave me a chance to read some good books about things other than higher education:

Amanda Ripley, The Smartest Kids in the World: And How They Got That Way. Some countries do much better in OECD school tests than others, prompting much investigation about why (my Grattan colleagues among them).

Ripley successfully uses a journalistic device of following the experiences of American exchange students in Poland, Finland, and South Korea to give a very readable introduction to the differences between their education systems and America’s. The material on South Korea is the highlight, explaining how a country in which students sleep during class tops OECD rankings.

Jackie Dickenson, Trust Me: Australians and their politicians. An appropriate book to read during an election campaign in which many people were saying that they were disillusioned by politicians and the major parties. As Dickenson shows, similar complaints have been made many times over more than a hundred years.

As Dickenson suggests, these attitudes can be a pose – cliched views that don’t translate into diminished expectations of government or even necessarily into opinions about individual politicians. But she usefully analyses real-world trends that foster mistrust.

The party system can be a force for mistrust, as it means that politicians often have to say things we suspect they don’t believe or don’t care about. Yet parties remain the key mechanism by which voters get the things that they are promised (Dickenson makes the point that, contrary to the impression of many voters, most promises are kept). The introduction of pay for politicians meant that people who were not rich could run for office, but set off a century and more of media outrage at politicians’ pay and perks.

This book tended to reinforce my view that voters are far too cynical about politicians as people and far too naive about government as an institution.

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, solutionism and the urge to fix problems that don’t exist. Several reviewers (eg Tim Wu) have said the Morozov is too mean to the many people he attacks in this book. I suspect they are right, but not being one of his targets I enjoyed the erudition and intellectual energy on display.

Given the American connotations of the word ‘conservative’, Morozov (a US resident from Belarus) probably would not like being described that way. But underlying this book is a conservatism for which I have a fair amount of sympathy. Different spheres of activity have their own norms and logics that should not necessarily be swept aside by values supposedly intrinsic to the internet (such as more information being better, or transparency). We should not necessarily try to solve all problems (‘solutionism’).

Anyone who is explaining the parallels between Ivan Illich, Michael Oakeshott, Jane Jacobs and Friedrich Hayek by page 7 in my view has something interesting to say.

What do high-ATAR students study?

The Australian‘s Higher Education Supplement ran a story this week on how high-ATAR Victorian students chase a narrow range of courses and unis. It was based on research by La Trobe’s Andrew Harvey.

The national applications data shows how this produces a counter-intuitive outcome: applicants with ATARs above 90 are persistently less likely to get an offer than students with ATARs of 80-90 or 70 to 80. The 2012 offer rates were, respectively: 91%, 97%, 96%.

It means that a few per cent of the 90+ students take all or nothing gambles. Even though there are hundreds of courses that would accept them, they only apply for one or a small number, and some of them end up missing out. Presumably most of them learn a lesson about hubris and put in a more realistic application the following year.

Andrew H also comments that “the progression of elite students into a narrow range of courses and universities arguably has a distortionary effect on the workforce and society.”

While I partly agree with this, data I received from DIICCSRTE (I hope this name will soon change) on the ATARs of first-year students suggests that the top-performing school leavers are more spread across the disciplines than the applications data might suggest.

The figure below has the 2011 ATAR for a student admitted at the 90th percentile of everyone taking that subject, or in other words with just enough to put them in the top 10%. It just shows those where the 90th percentile is at 98 or above. Surprisingly, radiography is at the top and maths is second (though there are few specific maths courses). From the arts, language and literature is there. If we drop down to 97, politics, history and the performing arts are all there.

90th percentile admissions

Teacher education has a 90th percentile of ATAR 90, with a median of 75. Not spectacular, but far from the very low cut-offs at some unis that attract so much attention.