University participation of rural and low socioeconomic status (SES) students is lower than for those from metropolitan areas or with higher socioeconomic status. This study explores the aspirations and intentions for university education among low SES and regional school students and looks at how peer mentoring might influence them. The findings show that, compared with their higher SES peers, low SES students have less favourable attitudes towards school, lower achievement at school, and less ambitious post-school study and career aspirations. Students who received sustained mentoring showed a higher likelihood of enrolling in a university course.
About the research
Students from rural and low socioeconomic backgrounds do not pursue university education at the same rate as those from metropolitan areas or from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. This has been a long-standing issue for government.
This study explores the aspirations and intentions for university education among low socioeconomic status (SES) and regional school students and looks at how peer-mentoring might influence them.
Through an analysis of the 2003 cohort from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY), the study found that:
- Although there is a substantial difference in the rates of higher education participation of metropolitan and rural young people, this difference is not attributed simply to location but rather to other factors associated with location. These factors include the lower socioeconomic backgrounds of rural youth, the presence of fewer young people of immigrant backgrounds in rural communities and the lower aspirations for higher education and professional careers among rural youth.
- Compared with their peers from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, low-SES students have less favourable attitudes towards school, lower achievement at school, less ambitious post-school study and career aspirations and lower participation in higher education.
An analysis of data collected from school students who were being mentored by university students showed that:
- Students who received sustained mentoring revealed a significantly higher estimated likelihood of enrolling in a university course. Mentoring appeared to raise students' identification with university 'in-groups' and reduce perceived barriers to university study.
- While mentoring increased aspirations for university study, it did not reduce aspirations for vocational education and training (VET) programs.
While this study is limited to the findings from one program administered at two schools, it provides a useful case study, in that it demonstrates the potential benefits of mentoring.
Managing Director, NCVER
The Bradley review of higher education in Australia (Bradley et al. 2008) indicated that rural and low socioeconomic status (SES) high school graduates did not pursue university education at the same rates as their metropolitan counterparts. In its response to the Bradley review, the Australian Government (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations 2009) announced several changes in funding arrangements designed to address this limited access to higher education. Universities now receive additional funding (4% of total teaching and learning funding in 2012) for the enrolment of students from low-SES backgrounds. It is expected that universities will use this additional funding to provide support to students whose families might not have the social and cultural capital resources of high-SES families. The government also announced changes to student financial support. The 'age of independence' has been progressively lowered to 22 years, enabling more students who need to leave home to study to access financial assistance. The income threshold for students has been increased to $400 per fortnight (in 2012) before government financial support is affected.
Here we report on two related investigations. In the first, we use data from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) to analyse data on students' intentions for and their subsequent enrolment in tertiary education. We are particularly interested in the influence of students' socioeconomic status and location (metropolitan or rural) on their tertiary study intentions and participation.
In the second investigation, we examine the influence of a mentoring program on students' intentions to pursue tertiary education undertaken in one rural and one low-SES secondary school.
Intentions, achievement and attainment of metropolitan and rural students
Although there is a marked difference in the participation rates of metropolitan and rural students in higher education (44.0% and 34.2% respectively), we find that this difference is explained largely by the lower socioeconomic status of rural compared with metropolitan students, their lower aspirations for post-school study and some related demographic characteristics, especially being of Australian rather than immigrant backgrounds. That is, location alone does not explain the lower rates of participation of rural youth in degree-level studies.
Lower aspirations for post-school study and for professional careers also characterise students from low-SES backgrounds.
The mentoring program
The finding that low aspirations are a barrier to participation led us to consider the use of a mentoring program. Prior research (see, for example, Houston 1999 cited in DuBois et al. 2011) has shown that peer-mentoring is an effective method for raising the aspirations for post-school study among disadvantaged students.
Students in two schools (one rural and one low socioeconomic status) were involved in the peermentoring program. Across seven school terms, beginning in the students' Year 9 classes, university mentors visited the school on average once a week during regular school hours. Each term lasted approximately 11 school weeks, with mentoring sessions ranging from an hour to a half a day. Mentors had discretion vis-a-vis the most effective use of their time, but in general they formed friendships with students, answered questions about university, helped students with applicable areas of work and, where appropriate, mentored students on career possibilities.
We collected data from students at six-monthly intervals and investigated the differences in higher education intentions at four points in time. Forty-six students participated in all four rounds of data collection. Students who had consistently received little or no mentoring reported lower estimated chances of attending a university following graduation from secondary school (M = 49%, SD = 28%), than those who consistently received moderate to high levels of mentoring (M = 65%, SD = 28.44%1), regardless of which school they were from. Analysis of individual time points (which contained a larger number of participants, due to many students being involved in only one or two points of data collection) showed that, while intentions were slightly elevated for students who were mentored for a short time only, these were small non-significant gains (p > .05). This may indicate that, for these students, short-term mentoring is unlikely to have sustained effects on intentions to attend university and a belief that attending university is possible. Intentions to attend a TAFE (technical and further education) institute remained stable, regardless of mentoring. These results are promising for university—TAFE partnerships, as they indicate that university and TAFE aspirations may develop independently.