Completing university in a growing sector: Is equity an issue?

Written by Dr Daniel Edwards and Dr Julie McMillan, ACER


This report details the findings from a research project funded by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE) that explores new data tracking student cohorts through the higher education system – from commencement to completion. In a time of rapid growth in the Australian higher education system, resulting in expanded opportunities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is critical to understand which characteristics are linked to a lower likelihood of completion, in order to target retention policies for ‘at-risk’ groups at the national and institutional levels.

The report uses data from the Higher Education Student Collection, and a cohort-tracking approach developed by the Commonwealth Department of Education and Training. This administrative database has linked an individual student identifier – the Commonwealth Higher Education Student Support Number (CHESSN) – to the enrolment of each domestic bachelor student from 2005 onwards. The CHESSN enables research to track the pathways of students within and between courses and institutions. The analyses focus on the completion outcomes of a student cohort that commenced in 2005 and was tracked for a period of nine years, up to 2013. The outcomes of this cohort are compared with other cohorts of students, tracked over a shorter period of time in order to validate findings. The analysis is supplemented by data about students’ experience and engagement from the 2013 University Experience Survey.

National-Level Completion Rates
Nearly three-quarters (73.6 per cent) of domestic bachelor students commencing in 2005 had completed a degree by 2013. Nationally, lower completion rates were evident for students with lower Australian Tertiary Admission Ranks (ATAR) (especially below 60), and those who commenced their enrolments as part-time students, external students, in the fields of Information Technology and Agriculture and Environmental Studies, and at the Regional Universities Network, as well as commencers aged 25 and over, and male students. While ATAR is a predictor of the likelihood of completing university, only approximately 40 per cent of commencing students have an ATAR recorded in the cohort-tracking datasets. Because this measure only applies to a minority of students, retention policies might better focus on other factors.

Low-Socioeconomic-Status Students
Approximately 69 per cent of students from low-SES backgrounds completed a degree, compared with 78 per cent of students from high-SES backgrounds. Low- SES students were more likely than other students to drop out within the first two years of study or to still be enrolled without completion nine years after commencement.

Non-Metropolitan Students
Students in metropolitan areas were more likely to complete a degree than those from regional areas and those from remote areas (approximately 75 per cent, 70 per cent and 60 per cent completion respectively).

Indigenous Students
The differences between the outcomes of Indigenous and non-Indigenous students are substantial. Indigenous students had a completion rate of around 47 per cent (non-Indigenous students had a rate of 74 per cent). More than one in five Indigenous students in this cohort had dropped out of university before their second year and another quarter had dropped out at some other stage in the nine-year period.

The Compounding Effects of Belonging to Multiple At-Risk Groups
Many students belong to multiple equity groups (low-SES, non-metropolitan or Indigenous students). Students in equity groups are also more likely than average to have other demographic or enrolment characteristics that are associated with lower completion rates, such as studying part-time or externally, or having a low ATAR. The influence of each individual variable on completion is exaggerated by the introduction of other variables. When analysed by SES, age and type of attendance, completion rates of students become lower the more of the ‘at-risk’ groups to which a student belongs. Similarly, when examined by region, age and type of attendance all three of these variables compound to influence the likelihood of completion. The particular analyses in this report highlight this dimension of completion that has not previously been able to be tracked across such a large cohort of students. The analyses also demonstrate the potential for further exploration of higher education completion at an even finer level of detail to enhance understanding of factors impacting retention and outcomes.

Reasons for Attrition
To explore whether students with a lower likelihood of completion are more likely to be disengaged with their university or have more negative experience than others, data from the 2013 University Experience Survey (UES) have been analysed. No meaningful differences were found between equity groups and other students across a range of UES scales relating to student engagement, access to resources and experience of quality of teaching. There were, however, notable differences between equity groups and other students in the rates and reasons given for considering leaving university before graduation. The reasons noted more commonly by equity-group students than other students revolve around finance, family obligations and core issues relating to ‘getting by’, whereas the issues noted more commonly among advantaged students than equity-group students centre around issues of ‘choice’ and lifestyle. Of all the data from the UES analyses in this report, this finding is perhaps the most insightful for identifying the different pressures on university students. This analysis highlights the areas in which students from equity groups stand out from their peers when it comes to engagement and retention and offers areas of focus for institutions interested in increasing retention among particular groups.

Future Research
The analyses of this report could be extended to allow for both a broader picture (tracking post university outcomes for equity-group students) and for a finer grain (using data from small subgroups). Further research could explore the graduate outcomes of specific groups of students with low completion rates, as identified in this report. The benefits of university completion for the general graduate population have been repeatedly demonstrated through the Graduate Destination Survey, the Graduate Pathways Survey and the Beyond Graduation Survey. Drawing on this range of data would highlight the difference that a university qualification can offer to disadvantaged students. Preliminary analysis carried out for this project suggests there are few differences in post-completion employment and salary outcomes between equity-group students and others. That is, for students from equity groups, disadvantage is erased by university completion. Further work is also needed to facilitate more-detailed analyses of the data of smaller groups – such as Indigenous students, remote students and students who are affected by multiple compounding factors – without compromising accuracy or confidentiality. Future work must balance the sensitivities involved with the potential policy importance of building this knowledge. Further research could inform targeted interventions to most effectively increase university completion rates.

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This report is one of a series of 12 funded by the NCSEHE’s 2014 Student Equity in Higher Education Research Grants Program.

Edwards, D. & McMillan, J. (2015). Completing university in a growing sector: Is equity an issue? Report submitted to the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education, Australia. Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER), Melbourne, Australia.

Posted 26 August 2015 By ncsehe