Socio-economic Status of Schools and University Academic Performance: Implications for Australia’s Higher Education Expansion
Written by Ian W. Li, The University of Western Australia, and A. Michael Dockery, National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education
Australian schools data were linked to first-year undergraduate data from 2011 to 2013 at an Australian university in order to assess the role of schools’ resources and socioeconomic status in determining academic performance at university. The key focus of the study was to determine if there are links between schools’ socioeconomic status and university performance, and if certain schools provide better platforms for university study.
The study utilised random intercept models to analyse the determinants of university academic performance. This allows for a separate intercept for each school, and hence recognises the clustering of students within schools. Further, random coefficients models are also used to see if schools differed in translating certain inputs, specifically, prior academic achievement and socioeconomic status, into university academic outcomes.
The key findings of this study are as follows. First, schools’ socioeconomic status is found to have moderate impacts on university performance. In particular, students from schools with lower socioeconomic status are found to perform modestly better than their peers from schools with higher socioeconomic status. Second, school sector is found to have negligible impacts on their students’ subsequent academic performance at university. Third, school resources are not found to have any impact in influencing student outcomes at university. Fourth, prior academic achievement of the students, as proxied by ATAR scores, is found to be a strong determinant of first-year university scores. Finally, negligible school effects are found in the random coefficients model. Hence, there are no substantial differences in the way that schools transform prior academic achievement or socioeconomic status into subsequent academic performance at the university level.
The findings indicate that schools with higher socioeconomic status inflate their students’ university entry scores and hence access to university. It is encouraging, however, that the effects of ‘privilege’ do not extend into university study, where students from lower socioeconomic status appear to face a level playing field in terms of academic performance. From a policy perspective, participation in higher education for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds should be encouraged. The findings also indicate that university admission regimes could be restructured to favour students from low socioeconomic backgrounds.