Low SES Students Do Better Than High SES Students at University

A report by the Victoria Institute for Strategic Economic Studies shows that first year students from low socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds at Victoria University achieve better results than high SES students. It also found that students from lower performing schools seem to perform better than their peers from elite schools.

Evidence from this study indicates that low SES students who achieved relatively high ATAR scores, in spite of their disadvantaged backgrounds, tend to outperform their high SES peers in their first year of study, other things being equal. [p. 10]

The report examines the impact of tertiary entry scores and SES, together with other factors, on the performance of first year higher education students at Victoria University in Melbourne, over the period 2009-2013. Victoria University has diverse entry paths and substantial numbers of low SES students and students from non-English speaking backgrounds. As such, it is an important case study for the impact of entry score and SES on student performance and provides a distinctive laboratory in which to study the role of socio-economic and other factors in student performance.

The authors developed a new measure of SES which is considered to be superior to the standard definition used in higher education. Using this measure, they found that after controlling for other explanatory variables, low SES students achieve higher average marks than high SES students for a given ATAR score in first year. Moreover, the gap tends to increase as the entry score rises, with the gap being particularly marked for higher ATAR scores. One extra ATAR point for low SES students tends to result in a bigger increment in academic performance than for high SES students.

The report says that the results suggest that high ATAR score students of low SES may be more driven/motivated or better prepared for university compared to high SES students in their first year of studies. An alternative explanation is that ATAR scores in elite schools for high SES students are inflated.

The report also shows that school performance has little impact on first year university results. It shows that students from lower performing schools according to VCE scores perform better than those from elite schools, after controlling for other variables.

Trevor Cobbold

George Messinis and Peter Sheehan, The Academic Performance of First Year Students at Victoria University by Entry Score and SES, 2009-2013. Victoria Institute of Strategic Economic Studies, Melbourne.

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