Does ATAR measure more than SES?

One reason ATAR is criticised is that it tends to reproduce socioeconomic status.

One of ATAR’s critics complains that it is

“…more likely to measure the relative wealth of schools, more than a student’s abilities. In fact, using a students’ postcode might work just as well.”

Similarly, another critic says that “ATAR scores align more closely to postcode than they do to human potential…”.

While ATAR is not this deterministic – there are a range of abilities in every part of the SES spectrum – it’s true that ATAR correlates with family background, student home location and school attended (the scale of school effects after controlling for SES  is contested).

But that the ATAR achieved is influenced by a student’s social background does not mean it isn’t measuring something real about likely academic performance.

As the chart below shows, fail rates increase as ATARs go down across the socioeconomic spectrum. For a given ATAR, there is very little difference by SES.Grattan ATAR_chartdeck

Similarly, attrition after first year is more closely associated with ATAR than SES, as seen in the chart below. attrit_atar_ses

Although differing slightly in some of the detail, this is consistent with my posts earlier this year arguing that SES has most of its effects prior to post-school education, with  university access, performance and outcomes being similar for low SES students as other students: the same results, or small positive or negatives. It is also consistent with our recent Grattan report on dropping out, which found more narrowly, but also with more statistical rigour, that low SES in itself only had a small negative effect on completion rate.





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 »

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 »

Higher education inequality: how well has Australia limited differential access levels by socioeconomic status?

In an earlier post, I argued that higher education has substantial inequality-generating features. This post is the first in a series looking at how well Australia’s higher education system does in this context, starting with access to higher education. Essentially, this is about how well the higher education system can foster social mobility.

The potential of the Australia’s higher education system is constrained by the potential pool of students, which largely comes from people who have successfully completed school. Before the 1980s, that was a minority of the population. Don Anderson and A.E Vervoorn’s interesting book Access to privilege reports that in 1980 overall school retention to Year 12 was only 34.5 per cent, and 28.4 per cent at government schools. It was already a massive 88 per cent at the non-Catholic private schools, favoured by many higher SES families. They were setting up the basis for the next generation’s educational success.

In the 1980s, school completion rates increased, so that about half of low SES students finished school by the end of the decade. Low SES Year 12 completion is now at 73 per cent, compared to 80 per cent for high SES students (with the caveat that dividing the population into three groups misses likely much larger difference in the lowest and highest deciles).

ATAR results by SES are rarely published, but some Victorian data I published in a book chapter a few years ago shows the highest SES quartile by postcode substantially over-represented in the 90+ group, and the lowest SES quartile substantially over-represented in the below 50 group.

University enrolment data by definition doesn’t include Year 12 students who never apply, but we know that almost all high-ATAR school leavers put in an application. Using a parental education measure of low SES, we can see in the chart below that there are many more students with an ATAR reporting parents with a higher education qualification than we would predict based on the education levels of people old enough to be parents of undergraduates (notice the different scales).

Further, when one or both parents have degrees (the chart shows the parent with the highest qualification, but frequently both parents have degrees) the ATARs skew more markedly to the higher end, producing higher medians.

atar_parent_dist (003)

The annual NAPLAN reports show that, again, the high SES students, whether measured by parental occupation or parental education, do significantly better across all the literacy and numeracy tests, although consistent with meritocratic hopes there are – as the enrolment data also suggests – high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds. So even though Year 12 completion has improved, we still have substantial issues with inequality of school-level academic achievement.

I don’t feel competent to judge to what extent university education faculties are to blame for this situation – although the early childhood research suggests that schools, also, are working within the constraints of the student pool. I will assess universities and higher education policy on how they deal with this academic achievement situation as they find it.

From the earliest days, universities and higher education policy (which was originally a State responsibility) have been concerned with access, offering students subsidies and scholarships. But that really only mattered in the post-WW2 era, since very few people before then went to university and it was not needed for most jobs. Hannah Forsyth has written about university admission policies in the post-war era. The Commonwealth government offered merit-based scholarships.Read More »