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.

As part of some Grattan work on completion, we did a regression analysis that included SES. The chart below differs in several ways from the numbers cited above: it is based on commencing students 2006-08, covers bachelor degrees only, is risk of not completing after eight years, and uses a measure of SES based on material disadvantage rather than education and occupation.* In itself, SES has only a modest effect on completion rates, with the highest SES groups being at 4 percentage point lower risk of not completing a bachelor degree in eight years than the lowest SES group.


The results need to be interpreted with care, because low SES could be having its effects via other variables in the analysis. For example, low ATAR is a major non-completion risk factor, and there is a strong school-level relationship between ATAR and SES. So even if low SES students out-perform high SES students at a given ATAR, the fact that low SES students are over-represented among all lower-ATAR university students means they also are over-represented in a high-risk group.

Another big non-completion risk factor is part-time study. Having too little time and too many distractions may affect low and high SES students in the same negative way, but because more low SES students need to work full-time and study part-time they are over-represented in a high attrition risk group.

Positive results in average marks and student satisfaction suggest that the university system is often serving low SES students well once they get there. Indeed, I think we should be wary of thinking about them in deficit terms or being too focused on university-level special low SES programs. Generally they look to be capable people making the most of their opportunities, and many of the problems they face other students have too, even if low SES students end up drawing on general student support services at slightly higher rates.

But we do have this issue with completion that is worth deeper investigation. Not all attrition is bad; it is a strength that our system is fairly open to people who want to give university a try and see if it is for them. Inevitably, some will decide that it is not. Many people who don’t complete their degrees leave quickly at low cost.

Still, a forthcoming Grattan report on attrition will argue that students who delay enrolling until their twenties greatly increase their risk of not completing. To the extent that income support issues are contributing to those delays, it might be one area in which higher education policy disadvantages low SES students.

A mixed result – perhaps 6.5/10.

* We did an education and occupation analysis as well, and found slightly smaller SES differences. We looked at material disadvantage on the theory that while family and occupational background might be a better predictor of the educational disadvantage that leads to lower initial entry rates into university, financial and other material resources might be a better predictor of the capacity to continue studying.

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