Are Low SES Students Disadvantaged in the University Application Process?
Written by Dr Buly Cardak (La Trobe University), Dr Mark Bowden and Mr John Bahtsevanoglou (Swinburne University of Technology)
This report investigates the sources of inequalities in university participation by focusing on the university application and admission process. We build on the growing international evidence of differences between high and low socioeconomic status (SES) students in their understanding of the university application process.
The report is based on administrative university application data from the Victorian Tertiary Admissions Centre, in Victoria, Australia. 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 compares student application portfolios before and after they discover their Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). The ATAR is based on final high school achievement and is the key means by which university places are allocated in Victoria. This data provides a unique opportunity to study how students respond to important new information about their admissions prospects.
An economic model is developed 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. The model motivates our focus on student achievement (ATAR) and SES in application decisions.
The empirical analysis focuses on the number of changes made to application portfolios after students discover their ATAR. A critical finding is that high SES students make more changes to their application portfolios than low SES students. This is consistent with international evidence on university application behaviour where disadvantaged students struggle with the application process.
The empirical analysis is extended to measure the benefits to students of being able to modify their application portfolio after they discover their ATAR. Key themes that emerge from this analysis is that those students that 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 benefit from receiving their ATAR. We also analyse some empirical claims about application portfolio aggressiveness, diversity and size by Chade and Smith (2006) along the dimension of student SES and achievement or admissions probability.
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