Poor doesn't mean expensive

kerry-ferguson_thDr Kerry Ferguson and Andrea Simpson

E-mail: k.ferguson@latrobe.edu.au


This piece was originally published in the Campus Review 21 February, 2012

Recent research at La Trobe University’s Equity and Student Services Division questions whether the current costs of educating low socio-economic status (SES) students are higher than for their peers.

Over the past few years universities have been receiving financial incentives for each newly enrolled low-SES student, on the grounds that they are "more expensive" than their fellow students.

These funds were initiated from research cited in the Bradley review that reported that low-SES students are high users of universities’ academic and personal support services. If true, this would mean that the costs of educating and graduating low-SES students are greater than for their peers.

The finding by Bradley et al. is supportive of the literature on low SES students and tertiary study. As a group, low SES students can experience a number of difficulties that could impact negatively on their learning experience and thereby result in their attending support services in high numbers.

Once at university, they are likely to experience greater financial strain than their peers whilst studying as well as a smaller support network. A number of authors have also reported that the tertiary environment can be perceived by this group to be "culturally" foreign and unwelcoming.

With this in mind, La Trobe’s equity and student services wished to ascertain the numbers of low SES students accessing support services as well as ensuring that students from low SES backgrounds were aware of services and confident in approaching them when needed. The university’s academic, personal, and career support services compiled a dataset of all students who attended support services over the first academic semester in 2011.

This dataset was then matched with demographic information in the university’s administration system to determine whether service users differed from the larger student body in terms of factors such as gender, age, SES, and being the "first in family" to attend university.

A total of 3287 students were recorded as attending at least one of the university’s support services over the course of the semester. This equates to about 13 per cent of the total student population. The large majority of these students (82 per cent) used only one of the support services included in the study. Of the remaining 18 per cent, approximately 14 per cent of these used two services, with only 4 per cent of students using more than two services.

In general, as a group, the demographic profile of student service users reflected that of the larger student body. However, undergraduate and full-time students were found in higher numbers amongst the service user group when compared to the larger student body. Approximately 18 per cent of service users came from a low-SES background. These small numbers are unsurprising considering that only 18 per cent of the university’s total student population come from low-SES backgrounds.

In other words, low-SES service users were found in numbers representative to their numbers within the wider student body. Previous in-house survey results also found that low-SES students showed greater awareness of support services when compared to their higher-SES counterparts, as well as more confidence in approaching services if they felt it was needed.

A limitation of the study is that the authors were unable to determine how many times each individual student accessed the same service within the semester, so it is very possible that some students are "heavier" users than their peers of one particular service. For instance, the student who attends several counselling sessions compared to the student who attends just one. A question for future research is whether there are links between these heavier users and SES status.

However, at first glance, our findings indicate that the barriers low~SES students’ face at university may not necessarily translate to these students turning up in larger numbers at support programs. This means that the current costs of enrolling a low-SES student may well be comparable to any other student.

Despite the positive finding that students from low-SES backgrounds were well represented within support services, the authors believe it would be simplistic to assume that because these students are accessing services in similar numbers that this also equates to similar needs for these groups. Outcomes for disadvantaged groups are still far from equitable and enormous heterogeneity exists within different groups.

Students from low-SES restricted resources result in them experiencing financial worry, increased stress, and the feeling that paid work significantly interferes with their ability to study. It is not surprising that the tensions these students perceive impact negatively on their campus experience with low-SES students reporting less time on campus and being less likely to report enjoying being on campus.

They also have less time to devote to extracurricular activities and are less able to develop social connections whilst studying, connections that may well assist in future social and work related opportunities. Support services need to be conscious of these differences when designing programs and responding to student need.

These figures are also unlikely to represent the future profile of service users. As institutions focus on getting greater numbers of students through the door, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, the profile of those accessing support services will change. As numbers grow, the "typical" university student profile will evolve and we can assume that a larger proportion of these future students will not be as academically or culturally prepared for university life.

Greater diversity is likely to place more demand on student support services.

Unfortunately, this future need may well coincide with doubt over the continuing availability of equity funds at the current level. The test for services will be how to invest current funding into predicting a questionable future.

Dr Kerry Ferguson is Pro Vice-Chancellor (equity and student services) at La Trobe University, her colleague Dr Andrea Simpson is a senior equity analyst.