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You are reading: University completion influenced by socioeconomic background

Research funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University has found that while more students with low SES backgrounds are attending and completing university, they are not completing their degrees at the same rate as their high-SES counterparts.

The study, funded via the 2014 Student Equity in Higher Education Research Grants Program, compared differences in Australian university course completion probabilities for low SES students to determine whether their socioeconomic status impacted their chances of completing higher education courses.

Mr Patrick Lim, Senior Research Officer with the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER), said with the push to increase university undergraduate enrolments, there was the subsequent issue of whether an increase in low SES enrolments translates to university completion.

“Socioeconomic status continues to play an important part in university completions with low-SES students having lower completion rates than their higher SES peers,” Mr Lim said.

“Students with lower academic achievements at age 15 are further disadvantaged if they also come from a low SES background, whereas higher academic achievement reduces the impact of financial disadvantage.”

The report found attending a Catholic or Independent school somewhat cushions the impact of being from a low-SES background.

“There is a strong relationship between student’s socioeconomic status and achieving success in their chosen field of study. Low-SES students who commence in a technical field have the lowest probability of completion, however the choice of field of study for high-SES students has a much smaller impact,” Mr Lim said.

“This report also shows that increasing access to higher education for low-SES individuals won’t necessarily translate into higher completions. In order to facilitate completions, support for low-SES students must be provided during their studies as well as providing greater access to university.”

Professor Sue Trinidad, NCSEHE Director, emphasised the importance of higher education in addressing social inequality.

“People need an effective education that prepares them for work and life and allows them to compete and succeed. While a university degree doesn’t guarantee success, the lack of a degree is linked to lower earnings and unrealised potential,” Professor Trinidad said.

“Low SES students need more than access to university; they need to be supported to complete their degrees.”

“We know the support programs offered by universities have a significant impact on SES students, the challenge is encouraging these students to utilise the services available to them,” Professor Trinidad said.

“I welcome this research on university completion probabilities for equity students and look forward to discussion on the practice and policy implications of the findings.”

The project was funded to advance the Centre’s national objectives to inform equity policy design, implementation, and institutional practice in Australia to improve higher education participation and success for marginalised and disadvantaged people.