Privilege and higher education

The SMH reports on the results of a study by ANU academics titled Why are high ability individuals from poor backgrounds underrepresented at university?

RESEARCH has exploded some myths about university entry and performance – including the notion that richer children and students from private schools get better marks. They do not, sometimes by a wide margin.

One study, based on research that examined the performance of 26,000 children, found that less well-off students often performed better at university than their richer or privately educated peers.

But the truth of some perceptions was reinforced: the research shows that far fewer students from less privileged backgrounds ever make it to tertiary study, and fall dramatically behind their richer peers in the final years of high school even if they have the same measured ability in year 9.

The study shows that HECS debts do not discourage disadvantaged students from university study if they have the entry scores to gain a place. Another study about to be published apparently shows that university results for students from less-privileged backgrounds average results higher by 3 percentage points than their peers from more-privileged backgrounds.

The ANU study found that the disparity in university entrance is enormous:

Dr Cardak and Dr Ryan found two out of three students from privileged backgrounds went to university; fewer than one in five disadvantaged students did so.

There appears to be a real problem with the way disadvantaged students fail to consolidate their academic skills in their final years of high school study.

The results were broadly unchanged even when the sample was limited to students who stated an intention to go to university in year 9 – which seems to rule out student motivation as the difference.

The study authors shy away from detailed discussion of the policy implications of their findings, but obviously such results demonstrate gross inequality of the sort that electorates despise. The low numbers of disadvantaged students in tertiary study also means that we must be missing out on advancing high-ability people to the professions, exacerbating our skills shortage. So what can be done?

Categories: education, Sociology

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6 replies

  1. That’s a hard one. I see a lot of “non-traditional” students where I teach; racial minorities and first in their families to go to college. Sometimes first in their families to finish high school.
    Some have a hard time fitting in. Some have a serious problem with authority, challenging the teacher’s right to assign homework or to evaluate their work. Some make it to one out of three classes and are astonished when this counts against them. Some are quick to cry discrimination when given less than an A grade. (Very quick.)
    These things seem to affect the economically disadvantaged students more than the kids from more privileged families. I’m not sure why; actually some of their difficulties you’d expect to see more often from kids with an over-developed sense of entitlement.

  2. It’s hard to tell without seeing the detail of the report, but this study seems to show that in Oz the disadvantaged students don’t have that same problems you’re seeing if they can actually gain a university place.
    The problem very much seems to lie in the years last three years of high school, where the poorer kids are being left behind and never making it to uni at all.
    Somehow I don’t think PM Spinrat’s plan to fund school chaplaincy positions[link] is going to help address this particular educational inequity.

  3. That’s very interesting. There’s certainly a lot of press around suggesting that HECS is responsible for poor representation of poor children at university.
    But did you see “the two of us” in the SMH a few months ago about a lebanese student and a chinese corner shop owner? The student, who was coming at the bottom of year 9 was inspired by his boss, the local corner shop owner, to actually knuckle down and study and eventually got into medicine at uni. It just made me wonder how many other children could be capable of the same with a good, inspiring education and a mentor.

  4. No, I missed that one Jennifer.
    I think the mentorship is the crucial aspect, and I can see that in some instances someone in a chaplain-like position could fill that role admirably at a school.
    I just don’t see why the explicit religious baggage needs to be associated with such a position.

  5. I think I might be a bit off-track, and working with a ridiculously small sample size (ie 100 students from this past semester), but I noticed that the students who were most likely to be disruptive in classes (lectures and tutes), least likely to listen respectfully to women talking in the group, most likely to interrupt other students (especially women), most likely to be assertively (if not aggressively) ‘heterosexual’ (ie performing heterosexuality), least likely to do well over all, marks-wise (because they left assessment til the last minute, didn’t prepare well, organise their time or activities efficiently, etc), least likely to do their readings and attend all lectures were the boys from well-off homes living in all-boy colleges who’d also gone to all-boy schools.
    I found they needed to be directed all the time (they couldn’t be relied on to get on with independent or small-group exercises by themselves), and they were most likely to disrupt discussions with off-topic talk. They were emotionally and socially less developed than their female and independent peers. They were also usually between 18 and 21 or 22.
    The female students in the group largely ignored them, socially, were more ‘interested’ (socially and sexually) in the independent male students. Both male and female independent students would regularly regard the college boys with a mixture of bemused frustration or disbelief: they really couldn’t understand why they were being so ‘immature’.
    The other male students in this age group who either lived at home or in shared houses/independently were far more self-reliant and capable. They were more likely to come to see me to talk about their assessment before and after they handed it in, were more likely to listen and work cooperatively in discussions, to do readings and to do further (unrequired) reading. They were also more likely to regard me as a ‘woman’ or ‘female’, with accompanying flirt-type testing than the college boys (who seemed to regard me as some sort of asexual extension of their high school teachers or mothers).
    The absolute best students to have in the group (so far as doing all the readings, assessment, working well in discussions, etc etc) were mature aged female students. They were also the most under-represented group (and I found that half of them – ie 2 – dropped out midway through the semester for family issues. An ill parent and the demands of paid work). I had no mature aged male students.
    There were other interesting variations in social dynamics from students of varying sexual preferences (ie out queer students), in same-sex groups, in kids from different economic backgronds, etc, as well. Much as you’d expect.
    But the male college kids were, largely, the most likely to reproduce gender and class-based stereotypes. Across ethnic groups as well (ie I found that the colleges produced a more homogenised group). They were also least likely to produce those moments of insight and excellent work which set a teacher’s heart a-flutter.
    As a young-seeming woman I found I was constantly working to maintain my status as group coordinator with these students – they responded to clear heirarchal orderings within the group and strayed from tasks in more equitable settings. So I would often have to resort to a frustratingly authoritarian role rather than discussion fascilitator or knowledge-resource. Without a clear ‘boss’, their behaviour would often rapidly descend into chaos.
    And all this from very bright, middle class young men.

  6. Working from a bigger sample, Dogpossum — fulltime university teaching over 17 years and chunks of casual ditto for another eight — every single thing you say here is borne out by my own experience. Fortunately I was teaching literature, a subject regarded by most of the parents of said young men as beneath contempt, and so very few of them were ‘doing’ it. (‘Doing it over’ might be more accurate.)
    My most interesting point of comparison was a discussion group in Geelong Prison that I’d been and talked to a few times when I was a ratbag 27 year old working at Deakin. They were polite and co-operative; they made the college boys look really bad by comparison. Mind you, this group was convened and run with an iron fist by a fellow-inmate, a former bikie who was an off-campus student of mine, so it may not be a fair comparison …


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