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.