School type and uni completion

Several studies have come to the conclusion that, for a given ENTER score, university students who went to private schools do not do as well in first year as their peers who went to government schools. Various theories have been advanced to explain this, including the coaching of private schools leading to ENTER scores that over-state the student’s underlying ability, poor adjustment from the spoon-feeding that apparently goes on at some private schools to the more self-directed learning at university, and private school students taking advantage of the absence of constant school and parental supervision to enjoy themselves after several years of hard work.

Unfortunately these studies tend to focus on first year, rather than what happens in subsequent years. A new study out today by Gary Marks of the Australian Council for Educational Research doesn’t examine marks at university, but does look at completion of university courses by 2004 of students who were in Year 9 in 1995.

Without adjusting for any background variables, the study finds that university students who went to Catholic schools were the most likely to complete a course with a completion rate of 87.7%. Independent school students were next on 81.4%, and government school students just below that on 78.5%. But ‘overall, after controlling for background characteristics and ENTER scores, school sector had no impact on expected completion rates.’ So whatever problems some private school students have in first year, they do not translate into lower completion rates in the end.

Like other studies before it, this one finds that socieconomic status has surprisingly little direct impact once students are at university. Except for students whose parental occupuation is ‘skilled manual’ there were only small differences in completion rates by that variable, and that difference vanished once ENTER scores were controlled for. Indeed, ENTER scores as usual were the main variable that stood out, with a completion rate of 93.7% for students with ENTERs of 90+, but 66.4% for those entering university on ENTERs of 50-59 (though that is still quite high from an unpromising start).

The neutral finding on socieconomic status is not pleasing everyone. Leftist education academic Richard Teese told The Age that the report is ‘misleading’ because university entrance scores are linked to socioeconomic status. The report itself isn’t misleading at all, but Teese is right that its pop version can lead to the mistaken conclusion that social background doesn’t matter. It still matters a lot, but its effect is on school performance, which in turn affects both the chances of getting into university and how well prepared students are for the challenges they find there.

26 thoughts on “School type and uni completion

  1. Completion isn’t the same thing as getting good marks. It’s possible to complete by failing lots of subjects and getting 50% in all subjects that are eventually passed.

    So there’s no necessary contradiction between the studies of first year performance and the study of completion rates.

    And there are lots of reasons for non-completion. Some students fail out, some lose interest,some drop out for economic reasons, and then there was bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard to start a business. It would interesting to compare reasons for non completion by student background.


  2. What does this mean for the universities that are dropping entry requirements based on the ability of the student to pay? You might draw the conclusion that it’s a waste of money, the student may not benefit and neither does the university (at least based on ENTER scores and lowering the entry requirements based on fees). Does it mean that having fee based places (created to cover funding shortfalls) are actually a total waste of time and are costing the universities (and students) more than they are generating? Or is it the intention that non-finishing fee paying students are subsidising everybody else? Doesn’t seem very fair.


  3. Uncle Milton – I agree, there is no contradiction between the studies. Indeed, the pop version of the earlier studies is ‘misleading’ too – students from private schools do better not worse at university than students from government schools in absolute terms because their initial ENTER scores are better. I was just using the second study to cast doubt on the pop version of the first-year performance studies.

    David – There are no implications for full-fee students. The median ENTER for Australian full-fee students would be higher than for students generally, because they are clustered in courses with very high cut-offs no matter what the basis of admission.

    I haven’t seen any figures on drop-out rates for full-fee students – though this study reminds us that previously published overall drop-out figures are too high because they can’t track people who change institutions. Because this is a panel study that tracks individuals wherever they go we can see that more complete a degree somewhere than data based only on one university suggests.

    As I’ve said before, I think more information should be made available to all students about historical success rates given certain characteristics of the student. But this is far more important information for people entering HECS places when they are below the top 20% of their age cohort than it is for full-fee students.


  4. Andrew Norton wrote:
    students from private schools do better not worse at university than students from government schools in absolute terms because their initial ENTER scores are better.
    Hang on – not BECAUSE (it would be hard to prove causation surely). We only know they are correlated. It could indicate something in particular: we know socio-economic background does have effects on school performance, so isn’t it an obvious indicator that we spend too little time and effort on poorly performing schools? Or should we take the modern approach that those kids just aren’t worth the effort? Maybe Mad Mark Latham was right – putting money into already well performing schools is a waste.


  5. I thought that was interesting too — so not only do you get a higher mark at private schools, but they teach you better as well (or smart kids tend to go to private schools).
    Actually, from a quick flip through the report, I think there are methodological problems with interpreting these results — there is a difference between _expected_ completion rates and completion rates. If I read it correctly, then expected completion rates were simply calculated by asking the student if they thought they would complete. If you look at the currently completed rates and associated numbers, most of the numbers are basically the same, excluding the top group. Thus for a fair chunk of the students, all they may be measuring is simply their expectation, which I assume is biased by previous experience versus the final reality.


  6. Conrad – The basis for estimating completion (described on p.17) is ‘assuming that those continuing in 2004 (15% of commencing students) will have the same completion to withdrawal ratio as the non-continuing group up to that time.

    That’s still not 100% clear to me, as what year the student is in would be important (university data suggests that the the later the year the student is in, the less likely it is that he or she will drop out), but it is assuming that current students will behave in similar ways to past students, not asking them whether they will complete.

    David – The reason many people still like using school results compared to say the US SATs is that the ENTER captures elements of educational prepratation (hard work, good organisation etc) as well as intelligence. It’s these variables rather than anything magical about the ENTER number itself that it’s reasonable to believe have significant explanatory power for subsequent university results. So while an ENTER for a private school student may slightly overstate these qualities compared to a student from a government school, on average private school students still have more of one or both the underlying variables (preparation and intelligence) and so do better, on average, at their uni studies.

    We know from previous studies using the same dataset as this paper that for a given set of Year 9 literacy and numeracy tests government school students on average get a lower ENTER than private school students. This suggests weaknesses on the educational preparation side. But is more money the solution? The Catholic schools spend less per student than government schools but get better results.


  7. Andrew Norton wrote:
    The Catholic schools spend less per student than government schools but get better results.
    Why then do we give money to elite private schools? Previously you’ve attacked catholic schools And the preservation of the Catholic system in particular was almost entirely about ‘values’, since many of these schools were nothing special educationally.. Are they suddenly good again because they charge fees?


  8. “The Catholic schools spend less per student than government schools but get better results.”
    How much do you think that is due to family background (standards of behaviour) etc, rather than school provided benefit?


  9. Even nothing special is better than the results achieved by many government schools.

    In earlier ACER studies, private schools generally outperformed government schools even after controlling for background variables, though I can’t recall the differences between Catholic systemic and independent schools in that regard. However, there could be unobserved differences between family backgrounds. For example, sending a child to a private school may be a proxy for a strong family emphasis on education.

    But particularly for independent schools, there are good theories explaining why they do well, in school ethos, responsiveness to parents, and high levels of management discretion free of central bureaucracies. For example, they select their own teachers.


  10. I guess you can ‘control for background variables’ in terms of individual students, but I’m wondering what the total effect in the classroom would be of having just 2 or 3 disruptive kids. Catholic schools are less likely to have those kids. You note that independent schools are more responsive to parents, but the reverse is true too – the parents are more responsive to messages coming from the school.
    Is it possible to make a comparison with a state system where problem kids are hived off into some other stream ?


  11. Still no answer on the point of giving money to elite private schools when catholic schools and good public schools do well on less?


  12. David – Private school funding is based on the presumed financial position of parents. It has nothing to do with performance.

    The Catholic School example just shows more funding does not necessarily equal better results (though the long-term increases over time for all school sectors show the same thing; much more money and little evidence of academic improvement).


  13. I would really love to see some info on how middle class students going to public schools go versus their ‘matched’ cohort to private. My sense is that they would be roughly equal – I went to a public school, which was in a high socio-economic area with parents able to afford private schooling if they desired it, but who had chosen the public school due to convenience and other factors.

    That school had 100% VCE pass rates, and had around 15% of students achieving ENTERs of 90+

    How my school tracked against a local private in university outcomes would, I think, be a better measure of ‘is private better?’ than a general public/private – because you just don’t get socioeconmic backgrouds like Dandenong or Broadmedows or similar showing up in the private school data, and I think that skews results significantly.

    Anyway. Just my thinking.


  14. Laurie – One of the school to first year studies found that students from government selective schools had the same pattern as students from private schools – lower uni results for a given ENTER than students from non-selective govenrment schools. Selective school enrolments are likely to be heavily middle class.

    But not ideal for your purposes; it would be better to take a non-selective government school in an affluent area.


  15. No, I think selective schools are a different beast, really.

    I think the best comparisions (and if anyone has any, this would be brilliant) would be between affluent-area public schools and affluent-area private schools, preferably in the same general region (so that parents could have easily chosen either or), and preferably with the private schools being without a strong religious bent (as this may serve to block students from outside of that religion – and we are looking for as generic a group as possible).

    I really think that such an analysis would show us more about quality differentials, without so many random factors.


  16. There is this Victorian data which looks at the % going to university from each school, but not ENTERs.

    From the area I grew up in, the non-selective private school I went to had 65% go to university, and the nearby high school (or ‘secondary college’ as it is called these days) had exactly the same, 65%.


  17. Andrew, another interesting contribution, thanks.

    We know that in universities there is a large and possibly growing under-representation of students from low social backgrounds and from government schools. If one accepts the results of this study, it is not because poor kids are disadvantaged once they get to university. Rather, the under-representation is principally due to the inability of poor young people to meet the ‘entrance’ qualifying scores required. So the problem should be principally traced back to the secondary education system – and going back further to pre-school and primary education – more than to universities per se. I accept the gist of this argument – which is why I have focused my main work on the former rather than universities.

    Yet I find it hard to believe that poorer kids face no handicap at all once in universities. We have evidence indicating that low incomes and the stress of combining studies with long hours of paid work seriously hamper the education efforts of poorer Australian university students.

    I also believe – and this may get you worked up a bit Andrew – that this particular problem may be set to get worse as a result of the Government’s ban on compulsory student unionism. Students from really low socio-economic backgrounds were by far the biggest users of the union facilities and subsidies; they are now the biggest losers and are being forced to rely on charities. The Vice-Chancellor’s Committee recently warned that “fifty per cent of students were neglecting their studies to work” and advocated an increase in the youth allowance and more financial assistance to those in lower socio-economic groups.


  18. Taust
    could it be possible that the culture of uni’s is not attractive to people from low social backgrounds? Thus they either do not wish to obtain a uni place or once there are fish out of water and thus have a higher failure rate. Anyone have any evidence for these conjectures?


  19. Fred – There is no reason to believe that low SES numbers are going down. The admittedly rather unsatisfactory measure used by DEST (postcode) shows that the proportions are flat, as they have been since they started being recorded (though a big increase in absolute numbers). When the census data comes out later this year I will be able to check on parental occupational background of those students living at home. I have data from the 1991, 1996 and 2001 censuses which show increases from low SES backgrounds. If the numbers are softening it is likely to be for a positive reason, ie the strong labour market.

    The AVCC data on student finances did not have anything on socioeconomic background. It would seem intuitively likely that poorer students are more likely to being working excess hours, though not the poorest (family income <$30,000) who get the full Youth Allowance. However, this is an area in which intuition has often been shown to be wrong. Given the extraordinary lifestyles that some students appear to enjoy excess hours could be spread more evenly accross the SES spectrum than people think.

    I was actually an opponent of the VSU legislation, as I oppose all price control in higher education. I wrote numerous articles opposing the bill. However, I doubt it will have any net significant negative effects on student welfare. Given the large amount of waste and rorting that was going on most students will gain more welfare by not having to pay a multi-hundred dollar bill at the start of the year and only purchasing services they want to use. And universities either already ran or picked up the running of many of the welfare services.

    Russell – I slightly misread the table before. Of all students (including international) university offer rates were local Protestant school 80%, local government school 78% and local Catholic school 76%. Of Australian students only, the following percentages were at university or deferred: Local Catholic school 75%, local government school 72% and local Protestant school 67%. At least in my day the latter was very non-selective, deliberately taking 'problem' children as part of its Christian mission to turn them around (with some success at least; I remember one mother in tears expressing her gratitude for the transformation in her son). Whether this policy has survived into this more academically ambitious time I do not know.


  20. Given the large amount of waste and rorting that was going on most students will gain more welfare by not having to pay a multi-hundred dollar bill at the start of the year and only purchasing services they want to use.
    Not at UNE – services have been chopped and the ones left are now being priced out of the range of many students. No doubt there was waste and rorting, but that was the lesser of two evils.


  21. I don’t necessarily disagree with your assessment re VSU’s effect on overall student welfare Andrew, but I am also familiar with individual cases where student union welfare/counselling services made a very significant difference to disadvantaged students capacity to continue in higher education.
    Anecdote is not evidence, but I think Fred Argy’s point related not to overall student welfare but to the welfare of the (relatively) small number of really disadvantaged people at uni.
    On the topic – isn’t there some evidence that students from ‘coeducational’ environments do better in the first year relative to entry scores than people who went to single sex schools? That could affect the results for broader school ‘types’, i.e. Catholic v state.


  22. I like the “mother in tears” anecdote. (I can see I’m having a bad influence here).
    I asked about the percentages because in the table it looks like the % is of the number of applicants, not a % of all year 12 students. So a school could get a better % by persuading students not to apply if they were likely to fail. In your first lot of revised figures it doesn’t look like the Catholic schools are doing better than the government ones after all.
    I think it’s all too confusing: I’ve known parents who have moved their not too bright kids to private schools because those schools will get better results out of the kid (they do), and parents whose kids have real behaviour problems doing likewise (government to private); on the other hand I have work colleagues whose kids were expelled from private schools because of their behaviour (not IQ) and are now gracing the rooms of government schools – so there is quite a bit of tooing and frowing.
    In WA the government schools are co-ed while many of the private schools aren’t – I wonder if that unsettles the private school kids when they first get to uni – it did me. (Also took me about a month to stop from springing out of my seat and standing to attention when the tutor walked into the room.)


  23. Leopold – There is a study of UWA students (scroll down to 2004 papers here) which finds that effect co-ed school effect. I think the explanation here is that single-sex schools produce better results because there are fewer opposite-sex distractions, but that distraction is introduced at university – with possibly some making up for lost time going on.

    Russell – No, I think it is all students. The numbers across the table add to 100, accounting for the activities of everyone.


  24. Actually — I’m not sure about Fred’s arguement to do with disadvantaged kids (although I believe it for secondary/primary schools). I’d really love to see the number of hours work that the students are doing by SES. My guess is that many of the rich ones are working a fair bit to support their lifestyle — its not like we have many low SES students, and those that we do have generally live with their parents — so the averages we see are in fact the middle-class average

    Its actually one of the big problems these days — people work too many hours, don’t learn anything, and then expect us to pass them (which of course we do). Then people wonder why undergraduate degrees are devalued.


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