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You are reading: Success, retention, and completion of care leaver students in Australian higher education

Authors: Professor Andrew Harvey1, Naomi Tootell2, Beni Cakitaki2, Anna To3, David McGinniss3, Teresa Tjia3


Executive summary

International evidence confirms that care leavers (those who have left foster, kinship or residential care) often record poorer completion rates and graduate outcomes than other university students (Courtney, 2016). Recent research from both the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) confirms that lower completion rates and outcomes are the result of multiple factors, including intersectional inequality. Care leavers, for example, are more likely to declare a disability, hail from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds, and record low grades in secondary school, all of which are correlated with lower university completion (Sebba, Berridge, Luke, Fletcher, Bell, Strand, Thomas, Sinclair & O’Higgins, 2015). Despite quantitative analysis of course selections, completions and outcomes in the US, UK, and elsewhere, equivalent work has not yet been conducted in Australia.

In the absence of government collection of data, the primary source of quantitative, longitudinal data on care leavers in Australian higher education has resided with La Trobe University and Federation University Australia. Since 2016, as part of their collaborative Higher Education for Care Leavers Strategy (“the Strategy”), both universities have been systematically identifying care leaver students enrolled across the two institutions. The Strategy draws on the evidence compiled in Out of Care, into University (Harvey, McNamara, Andrewartha & Luckman, 2015), the subsequent report, Recruiting and supporting care leavers in Australian higher education (Harvey, Campbell, Andrewartha, Wilson & Goodwin-Burns, 2017) and related research by the investigators at both universities (e.g., Wilson, Harvey & Mendes, 2019). Focussed on all aspects of the student lifecycle, from pre-access though to access, attainment, and outcomes, the Strategy has also resulted in the first longitudinal data set on care leavers in Australian higher education.

Drawing on these data, this report examines the access, geo-demographic profile, course selection, success, retention, and completion rates of care leavers across the two universities. In doing so, we provide the first clear picture of the journey of these previously ‘invisible’ students. Data analysis is complemented by interviews with care leaver students and graduates to explore challenges around completion, employment, and broader graduate outcomes.

Key findings

Consistent with related international research, our findings confirm the need for a whole of life cycle approach to supporting care-experienced students. Widening access to higher education remains a necessary priority, along with raising secondary school achievement rates and the educational expectations of those who work with young people in out-of-home care (Harvey et al., 2015). However, our longitudinal research also highlights significant gaps in success and completion rates, which are themselves likely to lead to subsequent disparities in graduate outcomes.

Our interviews with graduates further confirmed that, while care experienced university students tend to be highly independent, motivated and determined, they are also more likely than the average student to face compound disadvantage. Care leavers are more likely to be from regional and/or low SES areas, to identify as Indigenous, and to have a disability and/or caring responsibilities. Care leavers are also more likely than the average student to lack any fallback options — in the form of extended family they can draw on for emotional and/or material support, for instance. Interviewees highlighted the importance of acquiring a sense of belonging to the university, through peer networks, support from key academic and/or professional staff members, volunteer work, or on-campus paid employment. A sense of belonging was seen as critical to ensuring their continued enrolment and success at university, particularly during times of crisis.

Universities need to assume responsibility for their care-experienced students, identifying, monitoring, and supporting them throughout and beyond their studies. The La Trobe/Federation partnership, supported by the Raising Expectations program (Raising Expectations, 2021), has involved dedicated student advising, bursaries, and wraparound support, and such practices could form a template for other universities to adapt. Further expansion and refinement of this institutional support, including tailored employability services, is likely to be required if success, completion and graduate outcome rates for care leavers are to improve.

Governments can also contribute to the success and outcomes of care leaver students in higher education. Federally, there remains scope for the Australian Government to collect and report data on care-experienced students, and to advocate greater recruitment efforts among universities. These approaches have been adopted successfully in the UK.

Extending care to at least the age of 21 is another policy priority, which is itself closely linked with higher education outcomes. International research confirms that, among other benefits, providing extended care increases the likelihood of degree completion. Several state and territory governments have now made progress on extending care, following the advocacy of the HomeStretch campaign (Mendes, 2021a) but further work is required to advance a nationally consistent model of extended care (Mendes, 2021b) that will ensure stability of accommodation for care experienced students irrespective of the state or territory in which they were taken into care. Relatedly, state and territory governments will need to strengthen their focus on minimising school and placement disruption, increasing the emphasis on postsecondary education within transition and leaving care plans, and developing a culture of higher expectations. In this context, tertiary education would become normalised as a pathway and young people in care would be provided with greater autonomy, voice, and agency (Michell, Jackson & Tonkin, 2015; Wilson & Golding, 2016).

As the number of young people, and particularly Indigenous young people, in out-of-home care continues to grow (McDowall, 2016), it is time for stronger commitment by governments and institutions. Increasing the university access, success, completions, and outcomes of care leavers needs to be considered a national priority.


  1. That the Australian Government systematically collects and monitors data on care leaver students, from enrolment to graduate outcomes. Our data analysis confirmed that care leavers are over-represented within the identified equity groups in Australian higher education, and previous research has revealed that only eight per cent of foster children continue on to university (Tomaszewski, Kubler, Perales, Western, Rampino & Xiang, 2018). Such data reiterate the need for care leavers to be considered as a priority group, and more broadly highlight the need for a student equity framework in which compound disadvantage and intersectional inequality can be captured and addressed.
  2. That universities increase their own efforts to recruit care leaver students. The outreach and recruitment strategies adopted by La Trobe University and Federation University Australia, supported by the Raising Expectations program, highlight the potential to increase enrolments dramatically through targeted actions. Given the age profile and basis of admission of many care leavers, such actions could include diversifying and raising awareness of alternative entry pathways, such as vocational education articulations and enabling programs. Programs such as HomeStretch (introduced fully in Victoria in 2021) that provide direct resources and support for individuals as they are making choices about their own life directions, represent a significant opportunity not only for those individuals, but for universities that are interested in sustainable ways of expanding and consolidating their markets locally.
  3. That schools, universities, and community service organisations ensure extensive and expansive careers advice for people in out-of-home care. We found the university course choices of care leaver students to be relatively broad, consistent with students overall. While many students pursue disciplines related to their care background, such as Social Work, universities need to avoid stereotyping and the risk of ‘closing doors’ in their attraction, careers, and recruitment activities.
  4. That universities develop a focus on care leaver success, beyond access and participation. We found the success rates of care leavers to be lower than that of other students. Further modelling would be required to understand the interplay of compound disadvantage, prior educational attainment, housing and stability, and other potential causes of this lower success, but specific institutional support could include facilitation of peer networks and more flexible structures to support caring and parenting duties. Moreover, an emphasis on the positive attributes and expertise developed by many individuals during care experiences – including independence and the ability to navigate complexity – could provide the basis for increasing success and attainment in higher education.
  5. Similarly, that universities develop strategies to raise completion rates of care leaver students. We found relatively low completion rates, likely reflecting the well-documented challenges that care leavers face at different points over their educational journey. Our interviews revealed particular difficulties in managing course placements, caring and parental responsibilities, and paid employment duties. These themes have also been cited as barriers to completion in other countries (Okpych & Courtney, 2018) and could be addressed through targeted financial support and flexibility. Universities could continue to pursue and expand opportunities to enhance professional experience through placements and professional projects, while considering and mitigating the immediate impact of lost income during such placements. Given many care leaver students are studying in precarious financial circumstances, often working long hours to support themselves, conventional approaches to student placement can become a barrier to participation and success.
  6. That universities provide dedicated counselling and information to care leaver students considering withdrawal, particularly around options to take a Leave of Absence or move to part-time status. Our students followed bifurcated paths and after five years of enrolment had typically either completed or withdrawn, suggesting a gap in awareness of alternatives.
  7. That further research be commissioned and conducted into the graduate outcomes of care leavers, including transitions to employment and postgraduate education. Research from England suggests relatively high transitions to postgraduate study (Harrison, Baker & Stevenson, 2020), consistent with the experiences of our interviewees. Such trends may reflect the reality of limited employment opportunities following graduation, an attraction to the institutional context of the university, or a range of other factors.
  8. That Universities Australia and other peak bodies promote a specific focus on out-of-home care within institutional Indigenous strategies. Our findings were consistent with previous research, which has confirmed an over-representation of Indigenous young people in care, limited cultural and transitional support for those Indigenous people, and relatively low transitions to higher education. Among other imperatives, universities, governments, and other stakeholders have an obligation to increase the proportion of Indigenous care leavers transitioning to higher education.

Read the full report: Success, retention, and completion of care leaver students in Australian higher education

This research was conducted under the NCSEHE Research Grants Program, funded by the Australian Government Department of Education, Skills and Employment.

1Griffith University, formerly La Trobe University
2La Trobe University
3Federation University Australia

Expert Review

Dr Dee Michell
Senior Lecturer
School of Social Sciences
The University of Adelaide

This report by Andrew Harvey and colleagues fills in a significant gap in our knowledge about Care Leavers going to high education in Australia. Drawing on longitudinal data from programs based at La Trobe University and Federation University Australia (and in the absence of government data), the authors have mapped the course taken by Care Leavers from when/how they access higher education until they leave—either by withdrawing or graduating.

What the report demonstrates is that Care Leavers will enter university in greater numbers when encouraged to do so, but that they also need ongoing support to complete their studies. Care Leavers, say Harvey et al, are a subset of the six equity groups (and First Nations Care Leavers are overrepresented) and therefore have experienced considerable disadvantage. This disadvantage is reflected in a performance overall which is lower than for non-Care Leaver students.

However, amongst the Care Leaver cohort were students who excelled in their studies. Harvey et al point to the strengths of this group – highly motivated, resilient, determined, self-reliant, strategic, independent — as factors contributing to their success, strengths that often go unrecognised in the institutional context.

The authors conclude their report with a point they have been making for some years, i.e., that Care Leavers need to be acknowledged as a specific equity group and provided for within university settings across the country.

Download the full report:
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