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.

4 thoughts on “What do high-ATAR students study?

  1. Hi Andrew,

    I suppose the role of double-degree programs with relatively high ATAR cut-offs means that high ATAR students are found in degree programs with relatively low cut-offs (I guess that double degree programs always have higher ATAR cut-offs than each of their component degrees?). It doesn’t change the exclusivity found in degree programs with high minimum ATARs (e.g. medicine, law), but it does mean that high ATAR students are studying with students and graduating from a range of disciplines. The risk may be that the top 10% ATAR students in education end up working in their other discipline.



  2. Peter – Yes, double degrees are presumably one major reason why the generalist degrees still get high-ATAR students. But I can’t see how this makes it less likely they might end up going down the generalist path. A vocational degree gives them (and their parents) some security while trying arts or science.


  3. Hi Andrew,

    Are you able to post the link to the article in The Australian? I can’t seem to find it online.

    The issue seems more that high ATAR are choosing Go8 than a narrow range of courses. It would be interesting to know the number of high ATAR Vic students who travel interstate to do the courses they want at Go8 universities. Anecdotally I hear quite a few high ATAR VIC students enrol at ANU for Asian languages & philosophy. Philosophy (honours) at the ANU has an ATAR cut off of 96. Maybe for high ATARs just looking at VIC is too narrow.


    • Sean- The link is there, click on ‘ran a story’ in the first line. I don’t have data on high-ATAR students applying in other states, although I know that at least in the past there were high rates of people applying for medicine in multiple states. I expect that is still the case today.


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