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Disadvantaged in the university application process

Research funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) at Curtin University suggests that support should be provided to students from low socio-economic status backgrounds towards the end of high school to improve student understanding of the university application process and participation in higher education.

The report, a collaboration between Associate Professor Buly Cardak from La Trobe University and Dr Mark Bowden and Mr John Bahtsevanoglou from Swinburne University of Technology, investigated the sources of inequalities in university participation by focusing on the university application and admission process.

Prospective university students can apply for up to 12 university programs as part of an application portfolio and this portfolio can be changed multiple times in the lead-up to final closure of applications. The data used in the analysis, from the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre, compares student application portfolios before and after they discover their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR), providing a unique opportunity to examine how students respond to new information about their admissions prospects.

“We developed an economic model to understand student behaviour and decisions around university applications. A key feature of the model is that optimal application portfolios change because the realisation of high school achievement serves to remove an important dimension of uncertainty in the university application process. Having received their ATAR students revise their portfolio which requires the sourcing of new information,” said Associate Professor Buly Cardak.

“A critical finding is that high SES students make more changes to their application portfolios than low SES students. This is consistent with existing international evidence on university application behaviour that finds disadvantaged students struggle with the application process.”

“The students who make more changes to their application portfolio reap larger benefits from the opportunity to revise their application portfolios. As high SES students make more changes than low SES students, the former reap more benefits from receiving their ATAR than the latter.”

“There are strong advantages to high SES students in terms of their understanding of the university application process and how they respond to new information in that process. Conversely, low SES students come from backgrounds where families have less experience and familiarity with higher education and the university application process, leaving them at a disadvantage when informed actions and decisions are required.”

“Disadvantaged students seem to respond poorly in the window between discovering their ATAR and finalising their application portfolio. This is the critical point at which more support in the form of information and advice about study options should be targeted to disadvantaged students.”

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

“Inequalities in higher education reinforce both inter- and intra-generational inequalities across society. Understanding the drivers of inequality in higher education is essential to designing effective policy and practice interventions.”

“This new insight reveals an opportunity for intervention in addition to improving secondary education achievements for equity students. It also again highlights the fact that low SES students lack the ‘hot knowledge’ to which high SES students are privy.”

“I congratulate the researchers on this important report and look forward to discussion on the findings.”

Posted 4 November 2015 Posted in General, Low SES