Beyond graduation: long-term socioeconomic outcomes amongst equity students
This report aims to address significant gaps in scientific knowledge about the trajectories of post-graduation outcomes of students from equity groups by examining the following research questions:
- Do equity graduates reap the benefits of university education to the same extent as non-equity graduates over the short and long run?
- What are the differences in outcomes between graduates from different equity groups?
- What are the specific outcome domains (e.g. labour market, social capital, wellbeing) where equity group graduates perform particularly well or particularly poorly?
To answer these research questions, the study utilised robust statistical methodologies to analyse high-quality, nationally representative longitudinal data from the ABS Census of Population and Housing (the Census) and the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. Both sets of analyses covered five population-based equity groups:
- low socioeconomic status (low SES)
- non-English-speaking background (NESB)
- residents in regional/remote areas
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (Indigenous)
- students with disability.
Analysis of the Census data focused on the labour market outcomes and provided robust evidence over a short to medium time period. The Census analyses were complemented by innovative analysis of the HILDA Survey, which enabled the authors to document long-term trajectories across a broader set of socioeconomic outcomes (for example, health, subjective wellbeing and social capital) that go beyond the standard labour market indicators investigated by previous studies in this area.
The analysis of the longitudinal Census data suggested that there exist relatively small but significant differences between graduates from some of the equity groups and their nonequity counterparts in relation to certain labour market outcomes. Key findings from these analyses included:
- a lower likelihood of low SES and NESB graduates to be in employment, to be employed in a managerial or professional occupation, and to have a high personal income if in full-time employment
- a lower likelihood of graduates with disability to be employed.
These findings are consistent with the previous evidence from the limited body of other Australian studies in this area, while arguably offering more robust evidence being based on a high-quality and authoritative data source. Furthermore, while the Census analyses have a relatively short time horizon, covering up to five years post-graduation, this analysis went considerably beyond the four- to six-month after graduation horizon of the Graduate Outcomes Survey (GOS), which has been typically used to report employment outcomes for university graduates in Australia.
The HILDA analyses further extended the time horizon covered, capturing outcomes up to 15 years post-graduation. They also focused on a different set of outcomes, covering health and wellbeing indicators, as well as a set of subjective measures related to employment and financial circumstances. This makes it the first study in Australia to investigate such outcomes in relation to post-university outcomes of equity graduates.
Overall, the HILDA analyses suggested that for most of the outcomes investigated in this report, the trajectories of equity and non-equity graduates moved in similar directions, and at a comparable pace, after the attainment of undergraduate university qualifications. This resulted in lack of differences or a convergence in outcomes over a longer time horizon. However, while rarely statistically significant, there appeared to be some evidence that equity graduates generally reported inferior outcomes compared with non-equity graduates, at least in the first few years after graduation. This pattern appeared to be most pronounced for indicators related to subjective assessment of financial prosperity and job security but also social support.
Although the differences between equity and non-equity graduates were often not statistically significant, or converged over time, there were two notable exceptions to this pattern: students of an Indigenous background, and students with disability, both of which reported significantly inferior outcomes compared with their non-equity counterparts, particularly in terms of physical and mental health, and subjective wellbeing as captured by life satisfaction. While based on small samples, and arguably reflecting a broader underlying disadvantage for these two equity groups, these findings highlight that this kind of disadvantage is not easily alleviated through the completion of a university degree alone, but also requires a concerted policy effort within and beyond the higher education sector. For the other equity groups, the trajectories of equity and non-equity graduates appeared to converge over a longer-run so that any initial differences disappear after seven to eight years post-graduation. However, arguably more could be done to prevent this seven- or eight-year-long catch up and give an equal start to all university graduates, regardless of their background.