Higher education inequality: how much does performance at university differ by socioeconomic status?

In an earlier post, I argued that the Australian higher education system probably deserved about a 7/10 for equity of access. In line with some theory, the middle-class meritocracy continues to reproduce itself successfully, but the universities are open to talent: for a given ATAR, university participation rates are very similar across SES groups. But what happens when students arrive at university?

Intriguingly, many studies have found that low SES students or students from non-selective government schools do not do worse and indeed tend to get slightly higher marks, for a given ATAR starting point (eg here, here, and here and the literature cited within).

Various theories for this finding have been offered, but I suspect it is because the schools higher-SES students attend maximise ATARs through intense coaching and social pressure, but their less motivated and organised students don’t do as well in the much less structured university environment. By contrast, a lower-SES student who has done well in Year 12, quite possibly with much less school and social support than higher-SES students, is a motivated and resourceful person, and that pays off at university as well.

Student satisfaction is not reported directly by SES, but recent surveys differentiate between people who are first in family and those who are not. This gives much less nuance than I would like, but low SES students are much more likely to be first in family than high SES students. The Student Experience Survey finds first in family students are often slightly more satisfied with their educational experience than students who are not first in family. Maybe first in family student expectations are different, but generally they seem to be experiencing university in much the same ways as other students.

However, on actually completing a degree we do find some negative differences. Using a geographic measure, 69 per cent of commencing low SES undergraduates complete a degree within the nine years to 2015, compared to 78 per cent of high SES students. Read More »