Getting the tertiary transition right: six things high schools can do to set students up for success at university

Maxwell Yong

The transition from school to university is a pivotal moment in the lives of young people – how can we better support their choices for improved individual and social outcomes?

20 March 2024

There is always a lot of discussion around the performance of students in higher education. A recently reversed policy in Australia  financially punished students for failing too many subjects. And while this punitive rule is no longer in place, it raises the question of how best to set-up students for success at university. The recent Australian Universities Accord (AUA) final report, published in February, made a strong case that the bulk of the work needs to happen at high school but is light on the detail of what that might look like. This article identifies six possible actions for our high schools to consider.

#1: Don’t push students into university for the sake of it

In 2022, the dropout rate of Australian university students hit a record high of 25.4 per cent. Some of these students might not have had a clear sense of why they wanted to study at university but were trying it out due to pressure or expectations from parents, friends or their school. This is not necessarily a bad thing as evidence shows that people who did not complete their course still benefit, including through skills, interests, and friendships. However, it is worth remembering that every subject taken is at a direct cost to the taxpayer (with degrees subsidised at $1,200-$30,400 per year), who receive a much lower economic benefit if the student does not graduate.

So, while little can be done about family pressure, schools need to ensure that they are nurturing an environment where students feel empowered to pursue post-school pathways that are best suited to them. For example, high performing “academic” schools could work harder to advertise vocational and direct-to-workforce pathways for some students, rather than implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) presenting university as the only credible option.

This is one potential flaw of The AUA, which recommends a 55 per cent university attendance rate by 2050. This means that any student with an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR) of 45 or above should study at university. Depending on what levers the government intends to use to make this happen, it could lead to pressure coming down on students to study at university even if it’s not the right fit for them.

#2: Help students make a university course choice they will love

Many people (myself included) found passion, interest and enjoyment in their chosen university course. Indeed, there is significant evidence, both in Australia and internationally, that most students choose their course based on personal interest in the subject, as opposed to other factors such as cost. My research which showed the limited shift in student choice on the back of the last government’s Job Ready Graduate (JRG) package is further evidence of this.

However, many students will choose to switch to a different degree after enrolling. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, again, it does come with a cost to the taxpayer despite little recoupable value in the long term. While we shouldn’t aim to completely eliminate switching degrees, we can expect high schools to provide better information and career counselling to senior students to help inform their course choice. This was a key recommendation of the recent 2021 Gonski-Shergold VET Review in NSW, but progress has been limited.

An effective career counsellor will not just be able to read out the facts about a course that are printed on the brochure, they will have spoken to alumni and current university students to understand the unpublished realities of a course. Counsellors and subject teachers should also understand the broad strokes of various course curricula so they can advise students to avoid, for example, the rude shock I received when I started my economics degree and realised it was just lots of maths! This should also include insights about the course lifestyle and culture – for example, how medicine, nursing or teaching degrees require extensive unpaid placements that minimise time to earn a part-time living.

#3: Prepare students to thrive in a university academic environment by providing more independent study opportunities at high school

It is no secret that university is a very different learning environment to high school. First year university students go from having a familiar teacher who will step through every bit of the curriculum, to a lecturer and tutor who will provide content and instruction, but not much more. The university approach to learning is based on a model of independent study; there is a requirement for study discipline, research skills, and self-motivation.

High schools can help students build these skills by transitioning them from a teacher-led teaching style to an independent learning style throughout the six-year schooling journey. Examples of this include putting responsibility on students to complete readings outside of class, rather than going through everything together. I understand that this is easier said than done, but it is certainly one of the largest self-discipline learning gaps between high school and university. It is interesting to note that the International Baccalaureate (IB) program – offered at mostly private schools in Australia – develops independent study capabilities of students as part of their explicit focus on preparing students for university study.

#4: Prepare students for university and adult life

For recent high school graduates, university enrolment tends to be perfectly correlated with the transition to adulthood. This is an incredibly exciting milestone, however it comes with many traps. To succeed at university, it generally helps to have one’s life under control.

High schools can provide students with skills they need to live comfortably: financial literacy, navigating the housing market, how to care for one’s health and manage healthy relationships. While it is unreasonable to expect a high school to teach all of these life skills, they should support financial literacy as a first-step, to ensure university students can pay their taxes and rent, understand their university fees, and manage their expenses.

#5: Make sure students know their study funding options

A large barrier to studying at university is the ability to fund one’s education. While HECS-HELP in Australia means that there are no upfront fees associated with tuition, it can still be very difficult for university students to manage their living costs while studying. This is especially true for those completing degrees with high contact hours or unfunded placements.

While there is much room for improvement when it comes to government funding for struggling university students – again, the recent AUA has recommendations in this space – there are still many university-level scholarships and welfare options. However, these are spread across different providers, with separate eligibility and application requirements. Given there is no accessible central database for student support options, this process can be difficult to navigate. High schools, specifically careers councillors, should encourage and support students to find funding options that they may be eligible for.

#6: Pay particular attention to disadvantaged students

It is well understood that university students tend to come from advantaged backgrounds compared to the general population. In NSW, for instance, 55.9 per cent of university students come from the top 30 per cent richest postcodes, while 55.6 per cent had at least one parent complete a bachelor’s degree or higher (a strong indicator of socioeconomic advantage).

One way to make university enrolments more equitable is to have high schools provide additional support to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, namely: First Nations, low socioeconomic status, regional, and living with disability. Because some of these factors are correlated with entire high schools (e.g., a high school in a low socio-economic regional community with a high Indigenous population), federal education policymakers should consider ways to support university pathways for target high schools. There are explicit recommendations in this area within the AUA report.  Examples could include a “university immersion’ program, or targeted financial scholarships for students at those schools.

For student-specific disadvantage (e.g., those living with disability), there should be a combination of government-targeted support as well as high school level support. This can include additional career counselling and university application support.

It is also important to recognise that many non-traditional or ‘disadvantaged’ students come into universities as mature students, not directly from high school. The recent AUA report gives examples of how these students can be better supported, which is crucial to ensuring a higher education system that is accessible for all people. That said, if we can support more students from non-traditional backgrounds to enter university after high school – and to succeed through university – we will be transforming the opportunities available to them as well as supporting the future skills needs across our growing and changing economy.

Empowering high schools is key

High schools are made up of incredible and dedicated teachers and school leaders. They are often under-resourced and asked to undertake a number of roles beyond core learning and teaching.  Teachers, school leaders and careers advisers are wonderful people who educate and guide the development of young adolescents into adulthood. And while there are already many pressures on high school educators’ time, they play a pivotal role in setting up students for success at university.

So, government should consider how it can support high schools if it asks them to take on these additional roles. Implementing these six ideas would equip students to better manage their transition into university, and help them thrive in higher education. This would manifest in a more satisfied university cohort, a lower dropout rate, and a generally more productive economy – something we can all get behind.

Maxwell Yong is an economist and policy researcher. Max is currently working with co-authors at Melbourne University on higher education policy research. Max periodically writes for Australian and international media outlets.

Image credit:Kanchanachitkhamma

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Features

  • Jessica Cocks, Rob Ryan and Ben Spence

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  • Christopher Day

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