Do graduates from private schools earn more?

In The Sunday Age yesterday, there was another article about private school students struggling at university. It was based on the numerous studies (I mention a couple here) which have found that, for a given ENTER score, kids from private schools, and also selective government schools where they have been examined, average slightly lower first-year university marks than kids who have been to government schools.

Though this finding has been repeated frequently enough for it to be regarded as a valid social science generalisation, it is also widely misunderstood as saying that private school students get lower grades at university. I haven’t seen that question specifically answered in research, but given that private school students have much higher median ENTERs that is unlikely to be the case. Though private school students are not as academically prepared as government school students who get the same grades as they do, disproportionately few government school students actually get those matching grades at the end of Year 12.

There is also the problem that the studies are all of first year students. It would not be surprising if the differences narrowed in subsequent years, as private school students adjust to the more self-directed study style at university and learn that university life doesn’t offer quite the same freedom compared to school at they might have first thought.

As an ACER study I blogged on in April found, private school students have a higher rate of actually completing university, though once starting ENTER scores are taken into account there are no significant differences betweens school sectors.

One issue we don’t know much about is the differences between government and private school students after university. I have been trying to do a little research on this using the 2005 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes.

Looking at gross income for graduates in the full-time labour market, private school students are significantly more likely than government school graduates to have an income over $78,000 a year. The proportions were: Government, 27%, Catholic, 37%, Independent, 50%.

One limit of the 2005 AuSSA is that this includes income from all sources, and it is more likely than people from Independent schools have investment or other income.

However, there are also some interesting field of study differences (these are of the whole sample, not just full-time workers). These are most striking in education; 22% of government school graduates have a degree in education, compared to only 7% of Independent school graduates. This may be partly the legacy of the old teaching scholarships, but also of the lower Year 12 scores more recently required for entry to education courses. Though there was nothing else as striking as education, government school graduates were also over-represented in creative arts, IT and science (but only by 1%).

Independent school students were most over-represented in the annoying ABS category ‘society and culture’, which includes arts but also law, 24% compared to 16%. I expect this reflects the hold Independent schools have had on law schools, but perhaps also the BA as a kind of finishing school for middle class girls.

We need more research to know whether the under-representation of government school student university graduates in the top income categories reflects their field of study and subsequent occupation, or whether perhaps the social and cultural capital Independent school students possess advantages them in the labour market, over and above the effects would would expect from their course and grades.

10 Responses to “Do graduates from private schools earn more?

  • 1
    Russell
    October 8th, 2007 14:34

    “whether the under-representation of government school student university graduates in the top income categories reflects their field of study and subsequent occupation, or whether perhaps the social and cultural capital Independent school students possess advantages them in the labour market…”
    What about the most obvious thing – the income/occupation of the parents? I think that when you get to the end of researching this topic you’ll find what we Green Left Weekly readers always knew: most of our chances in life are inherited. The children of doctors, lawyers and engineers are more likely to go to independent schools and become doctors, lawyers and engineers.

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    October 8th, 2007 15:29

    Russell – Income/occupation of the parents could just explain why their kids get into better courses at better universities. But it may confer additional advantages, in their kids being able to operate more effectively in the labour market through having more suited social skills and connections.

  • 3
    conrad
    October 8th, 2007 15:50

    Not that I think there is really much difference between the way public and private school kids are taught, excluding overall quality (or at least that the overlap in method would is huge), but there seems to have been quite a change over the last decade or so in what students expect and what people give them. This being that students are now happy to ask for essentially any information for an assignment, when once upon a time they may have actually tried to find it themselves, and people are now happy to give it to them (lest they complain).
    If this is so, then the lack of difference between public vs. private schools may now simply reflect this (i.e., a curriculum tailored for people that are used to being told how to do everything — hence there is no benefit in being able to do things yourself).
    Maybe this is just me complaining, but I seem to remember a survey from a while ago showing that social science students were no better at independent problem solving and creative thought than some other comparison groups, despite their 3 years of supposedly learning how to do it (or whatever the categories were — they were ones which were designed to test the idea that social science students learn the type of problem solving skills that apparently other courses do not teach — I wish I could remember the article).

  • 4
    Bring Back CL's blog
    October 8th, 2007 16:25

    Andrew,

    most teaching styles in private and selective high schools are very much teacher centred which is what one finds at University. Whereas government school are very much into student centred teaching .

    I would have thought they would take more time at adjusting rather than the reverse.

  • 5
    Andrew Norton
    October 8th, 2007 16:34

    Conrad – I’ve written about that issue, unfortunately in op-eds that seem to have vanished in a CIS ‘upgrade’ of its website. What I said about limited Australian research I have posted below, but the American research comes to similar conclusions:

    The Graduate Skills Assessment (GSA) test assesses report writing, argument writing, problem solving, critical thinking, and interpersonal understanding. It hasn’t been used to clearly show much the various degrees add to students’ generic skills. However, two GSA samples, one made up mainly of first-year students, and the other mostly of third and fourth-year students, let us do a rough before and after test.

    This comparison showed that later year Arts students did better than first year students on all five skills. So far, so good. Arts students did not, however, improve the most. On four of the five skills, Commerce and Science students improved by larger margins. As this study wasn’t designed to test comparative skill improvement, we should not jump to the conclusion that Commerce and Science are better for generic skills. But it should inspire some scepticism about the claims made on Arts behalf.

    We can also look at students’ evaluation of their own progress with generic skills, as collected in the 2001 Course Experience Questionnaire. For problem solving, 66% of humanities and social science graduates agreed that the ‘course developed my problem solving skills’— less than seven of the other nine fields of study in the survey.

    Arts graduates rated themselves better on other generic skills, but ended up with an average of just 0.6% above the mean for all fields of study. Arts graduates themselves are considerably more modest about their increased abilities, relative to other disciplines, than are the people who speak on their behalf.

    Some employers are happy with the critical thinking skills of their Arts graduates. The GSA suggests why this might be the case. While Arts students do not improve their critical thinking by as much as students in some other fields of study, they started from a high base. Only medical students had a significantly higher average score among first year students. People who are already good at critical thinking are attracted to Arts degrees. So while Arts courses are not exceptionally good at enhancing critical thinking skills, Arts degrees may nevertheless help employers identify prospective employees with critical thinking ability.

  • 6
    Terje Petersen
    October 9th, 2007 07:31

    The children of doctors, lawyers and engineers are more likely to go to independent schools and become doctors, lawyers and engineers.

    I think the reason that people tend to follow the careers of their parents or to follow careers with similar earning capacity has much more to do with personal expectations than it does with educational advantage or genetically inherited intellect. Our sense of what is possible in life and our subsequent personal benchmark for performance is defined to a large degree by what people around us manage to achieve. So even if there is only one school in town the doctors adopted kid is still more likely than her classmates (who have a truck driver etc for a dad) to go on to be a doctor, a lawyer or some form of high income professional.

  • 7
    Russell
    October 9th, 2007 11:23

    Terje,
    I agree about the importance of expectations, but the school experience is also important there too. Think of the truck driver who sends his kids to an elite school – their peers will most likely be heading/working towards university education and professional careers, and most kids want to fit in with their peers so they’ll do the same. They might not have absorbed the useful habits the doctor’s child did at home, but they’ll still probably do better at the independent school than they would have at the state school.

    I think it will be almost impossible to figure out how much difference a school, and only the school, makes to future income. For example I would expect most students at independent schools live in ‘nice’ areas – how could you calculate the future advantage that belonging to say, the Dalkeith tennis club would bring as compared to hanging out at the Balga skateboard ramp?

  • 8
    David Rubie
    October 9th, 2007 11:59

    Terje Peterson wrote:

    So even if there is only one school in town the doctors adopted kid is still more likely than her classmates (who have a truck driver etc for a dad) to go on to be a doctor, a lawyer or some form of high income professional.

    There is a bit of inherited intellect effect, although it’s probably more important to be aware of opportunities before kids are channelled down a path to being a truck driver or a lawyer. There seem to be more opportunities for career change now, so perhaps the initial job you aim for isn’t so important anymore. However, I’d prefer that more of the truck drivers kids were made aware of the opportunities available to them if indeed that’s a problem.

  • 9
    Terje (say tay-a)
    October 9th, 2007 13:33

    David – It is not merely awareness that I am on about. Most kids growing up are aware that doctors and lawyers earn an above average wage. What matters more is personal expectation. Of course there is no shame in being a truck driver or a plumber (or there should be no shame) however personal expectations have a big impact on the outcome. You can’t readily educate around this.

    Russell – I accept that peers have a significant influence.

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