ATAR Matters | Ms Natalie Twine
It seems self-evident that an ATAR provides the optimal pathway to university study. After all, an ATAR involves the study of at least four academically rigorous subjects with a curriculum designed specifically to foster the development of higher order thinking skills, and assessment requiring clear demonstration of the concepts underpinning the curriculum. Across Australia, most school leavers are admitted to university on the basis of their ATAR. In recent years, however, a growing number of students have been admitted into university on a non-ATAR basis. In 2016 that was the case for 15% of school leavers starting at university. Today that figure is 25%.
Proponents of “non-ATAR” admission claim the ATAR system is flawed and insufficiently “wholistic” while “non- ATAR” admission broadens opportunity for students who have not had the capacity to shine academically in their school years. This raises the issue of student outcomes. Are ATAR students faring better than their non-ATAR classmates at university? A recently released paper from the Centre for Independent Studies, entitled ATAR’s Rising Relevance, suggests that ATAR admission is associated with much better outcomes. ATAR, it seems, is predictive of completion and attribution rates for school leavers. The first-year drop -out rate for students admitted without an ATAR is 12%, almost double the rate of ATAR-admitted students. Moreover, non-ATAR students who persist beyond first year tend to have much longer degree completion timeframes.
The paper also reported that students admitted with low ATARS (an ATAR of 60 or lower) struggled at university with an attrition rate three times as high as students with stronger ATARS.
The consequences of a poor first year at university can be considerable. Not only is academic failure demoralising for students, the government has now decreed that first year students who fail more than half of their coursework will lose HECS funding. The decision to drop out of university can leave a student with an uncomfortable financial legacy. Consider that a year of a business degree, for example, will incur a $15 000 HECS debt for a student.
What can we learn from this research? The paper certainly suggests that students with aspirations towards higher education are best served by taking an ATAR academic program at school and ensuring their ATAR reflects their best efforts. Rising to the challenge of an academically rigorous curriculum is likely to mitigate against the risks of academic disengagement or failure further down the track. Students concurrently studying a Diploma outside of their school program would be well advised to maintain application to their school subjects to maximise their ATAR, rather than relying on the rank generated by the Diploma as a means to admission.
Students struggling with an ATAR-based academic program at school should take advantage of the support available to them at Terrace. Some students may need to review and refine their subject choices.
Students who emerge from Year 12 with low ATARS, but aspirations to study at university, might consider pathway programs that build academic competence before plunging headfirst into degree programs. Universities offer a number of support programs for incoming students to help them build the skills for university-level success. From 2024 onwards, a “performance model” of university funding will take effect and factors like student attrition will influence university funding, possibly increasing the help and support students can access at university.
It's worth noting that an ATAR, and university study, is not the only gateway to career fulfilment.
A successful career can take many forms. Workforce participation, apprenticeships and vocational studies offer bright prospects for many students.