Higher education inequality: do graduate outcomes differ by socioeconomic status?

In earlier posts in this series on inequality and higher education, I have suggested that the SES participation differences are largely driven by prior academic performance and that different SES groups seem to experience higher education in much the same way, but low SES students are less likely to complete their degrees. In this post, I will look at outcomes for the students who do complete their degrees.

First, are there differences in rates of getting a job? The 2017 Graduate Outcomes Survey finds that there are small differences. About four months after completing their bachelor degree, 73.6 per cent of high SES graduates who were looking for full-time work had found it, compared to 70.3 per cent of low SES graduates. However, of those who were working full time low SES students were slightly less likely to report not fully using their skills at work than high SES graduates (27.1 per cent compared to 28.9 per cent). It is difficult to say whether there is any direct SES effect in these results, as employment outcomes differ substantially by field of education, and SES differences in discipline choices could explain the results.

The Graduate Outcomes Survey also looks at starting salaries in the first full-time job after completing an undergraduate degree. Again, we find a small SES difference: the median starting salary for high-SES graduates in 2017 was $61,000, and for low SES graduates it was $60,000. This does not tell us whether there is any direct SES effect (such as not being able to access social networks to find professional jobs) or whether other factors such as discipline explain the result. A study using an earlier first year out survey had a limited control for discipline, as well as controls for weighted average marks, gender, and various other factors. It found no negative salary effect for low SES students, using a geographic measure of SES.

One possible cause of SES differences is that low SES students tend to attend the less prestigious universities, reflecting the school results issues reported in an earlier post. For example, 7.5 per cent of the University of Sydney’s students are low SES on a geographic measure, compared to 26.2 per cent of Western Sydney University students.

In theory, university attended should affect starting salaries. There are well-known differences in entry requirements between universities, which employers may take as a more reliable measure of ability than university marks, and employers may assume that the more prestigious universities have better teaching (can attract better staff, have more to spend – although student satisfaction surveys don’t support this conclusion). The first full-time job is when employers have to make greatest use of proxy indicators of potential, since most new graduates lack a track record in full-time skilled employment. Consistent with this, nearly 40 per cent of graduate employers say they have preferred institutions, mostly Group of Eight universities.

In practice, however, many studies have found no or small starting salary differences by university or university grouping (eg here, here, here, here and here). What course you take matters much more to your income than what university you attend. Read More »

Increases in low SES uni participation, 1991-2011

Using the trend data from the chart below, it is often said that we are making little progress in increasing higher education participation for people from low SES backgrounds.

low SES trend

The chart shows domestic low SES students as a percentage of all domestic students. But the denominator is important: it means that low SES enrolment has to increase more quickly than enrolment generally for the percentage to go up.

A more meaningful indicator is low SES enrolment as a percentage of the relevant low SES population. This tells us whether people from low SES backgrounds are becoming more likely to attend university over time.

An interesting paper out from the Group of Eight today (disclosure: drawing on some of my work from a few years back) shows how, for the late teenage children of low SES workers, university attendance has become more likely over time.

For example, in 1991 16 per cent of the children of tradespeople were at university. Twenty years later that number was 26 per cent. The gaps between SES groups remain very wide, but with participation growth in the leading SES group, professionals, slowing down the gaps are not as large as they were in the past.

Census trends occupational partic

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Note: The data is drawn from the census, using 18 and 19 year olds living at home. At home is needed to determine parental occupation. According to the two latest censuses, about 80% of 18 year old university students and 70% of 19 year olds are living with their parents.

Are low SES people more worried about fees than other people?

My new Grattan report, Graduate Winners: Assessing the public and private benefits of higher education was released tonight (Canberra Times covering it already).

The basic argument is that given high private benefits, higher education will generally be produced with or without a tuition subsidy. Therefore we can start phasing down tuition subsidies. I suggest 50% over 4 years for most disciplines.

The usual reaction to such suggestions is that the low SES people in particular will be put off higher education. I report the contrary Australian evidence. There is interesting English evidence in this report. What the English have done is far more radical than anything I am suggesting. Except for the clinical and lab subjects, they haven’t cut 50% over 4 years. They have cut 100% over 1 year. Combined with some scope for overall funding increases for universities, some student charges will nearly triple.

For the school leaver group, overall demand dropped by one percentage point of the age cohort compared to 2011, or about 15,000 people (like Australia before 2012, the UK has a capped system with demand exceeding supply, so this will have no effect on the total number of students). Read More »

On track for 20% low SES students by 2020?

As education minister, Julia Gillard set a target of 20% of undergraduate university students coming from the lowest 25% of SES backgrounds by 2020. Some enrolment statistics released last week showed a 0.30 percentage point gain between 2009 and 2010 to reach 16.47%. This is the biggest increase since this time series began in 2001.

The figure below shows that if this growth rate was maintained for the decade, the target would come close to being met. On the other hand, if the growth rate was the average of 2009 and 2010 the target would be missed by a largish margin.

Which scenario is more likely? At least in the short term, there is a good chance that strong growth will continue. For commencing students, there was a .64 percentage point gain, so as this cohort moves through the system the low SES share will expand. We don’t have any detailed 2011 data yet, but with some expected additional growth in overall numbers I would anticipate that low SES numbers will again improve. Read More »