Academic achievement, socio-economic background and post-school destinations of Australian students

Year: 2019

Author: Tomaszewski, Wojtek, Kubler, Matthias, Polidano, Cain, Ryan, Chris, Cardak, Buly

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

There is a wealth of empirical evidence, in Australia and internationally, showing that students from low socio-economic backgrounds (low SEB) are disproportionally more likely to select vocational rather than university-level tertiary education (James 2000; European Commission 2011; Martin et al. 2015). In this context, significant concerns have been expressed for the low SEB students who show high academic aptitude but are unable to pursue university options due to various material and aspirational barriers.

This study investigates how secondary students’ academic ability and their socio-economic background shape their post-school destinations. Of particular interest is the choice between university versus vocational education or employment options. Specifically, the paper seeks to address the following research question:

How does the impact of socio-economic background on post-school destinations vary depending on the students’ academic ability?

Based on theoretical considerations (Bourdieu, 1996; Goldthorpe 1996, 2014; Blanden & Gregg, 2004) we hypothesise that the effects of socio-economic background on enrolling into university (relative to other options) will be strongest at the lowest ability levels, with more advantaged students being able to obtain access to better post-school options despite poor academic achievement.

The study leverages a unique large-scale linked administrative and survey data set provided by the Queensland Department of Education. Administrative records for a cohort of students from all government schools in Queensland have been linked to responses from the Next Steps Survey, which captures initial post-school destinations at around six months after leaving school, including the course details for those engaged in further education.

A series of multinomial logistic regression models were fitted to the data to estimate the effects of socio-economic background and academic ability on post-school destinations (university; VET; employment; NEET). The initial results from modelling show similarities in student factors associated with any of the non-university destinations, relative to enrolling into university. Consistent with previous literature, low SEB (captured using various indicators) is strongly predictive of choosing non-university destinations, even when controlling for academic achievement. Subsequent analyses will extend the models by focusing on the interaction between socio-economic background and academic achievement.

This is one of the first studies in Australia, and internationally, to employ large-scale administrative and survey data linked over time to address questions about the links between academic ability, socio-economic background and students’ post-school outcomes. The findings will inform school and higher educational policies at the State and Commonwealth levels, and will offer valuable pointers for university outreach programs.