Low ATAR offers result in few low ATAR completions

The SMH has lots of NSW university offers data to contribute to the annual ATAR controversy. It’s the usual story of students being offered places with very low ATARs.

There are always lots of threads to this controversy. Are low-ATAR admissions a sign of declining academic standards? Do we place too much emphasis on ATAR anyway? Should universities be more open about their admission practices? Do low-ATAR enrolments risk putting incompetent professionals out into the workforce?

While there are real issues here, some numbers are useful for putting things into perspective. I’m using 2014 numbers because I have enrolment data for that year but not yet 2015.

The first three columns in the chart are from tertiary admission centre data. The first thing to note is that in 2014 about 60% of very low ATAR – 50 or below – applications did not result in any offer. Of the applications that did result in an offer – the issue in the news this week – about half resulted in the prospective student rejecting it. The offer might have been for a course that was not their first preference, or possibly they only applied to keep options open, without having a firm intention to go to university.

diminishing ATARs

The next bar on the chart is enrolments of students who reached the HELP census date, usually around the end of March. It shows that about a third of below 50 acceptances leave before the census date, presumably having decided that higher education was not for them, at least not at this time. The low-ATAR issue is starting to look at lot smaller than it did at the offers stage. Final enrolments of 50 or below ATARs from 2013 school leavers in 2014 were only 3% of all that cohort (although total low-ATAR enrolment is higher than this, due to students who finished school in other years).

I have added a projection of their final completions, based on the Department’s 2005 cohort analysis. If that is a good guide to the future, less than 20% of below 50 ATAR school leavers who receive an offer will eventually get a degree.

My perspective on this is primarily a consumer protection one. Prospective students are not being informed of the risks they are taking. Universities say that they are looking at what predicts success other than ATAR, but only rarely do they release any evidence of this that can be checked by independent analysts. The regulator’s vague statements are less than confidence inspiring. The numbers of people taking major risks are not that large in the context of total enrolments. But we should be doing more to ensure that they are making decisions that are in their own long-term interests.

2 thoughts on “Low ATAR offers result in few low ATAR completions

  1. ATARs are not the be all and end all.

    I targeted an ATAR of around 80 to get into my favoured uni course….I mean, why kill yourself for a 90 when an 80 will do?

    But here’s another thing – when I got to uni, I was equally as smart as other kids with 90 ATARs. They just to schools that manipulate the testing to get their scores up.

    Also, I was a late bloomer. Often you see the kids of tiger moms (almost exclusively Asians) kick ass in school, but they can’t sustain it in uni. I was the opposite. Bludged at school, but got better and better.

    So in short, yes it means something, but not everything.

    Something more interesting, is a move away from ATARs as strict entry requirements as a pseudo way of affirmative action. The end result, at least in the US, has been more African and latino kids entering uni at the expense of Asian-American kids. So the Asian kids are suing for discrimintation….classic !


  2. It is so true that students are not informed on the risks they take. In terms of long term interests for the students, it is more important to have clear statements. We are recommending to our students to check this article as it’s very informative and detailed. Thank you for the great insights!


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