Wednesday, May 11, 2022

Do Students from Low Socioeconomic Status Backgrounds Cost More to Teach?

Devlin and others (2022), estimate that it costs about six times as much for an Australian university to support a low socioeconomic status (SES) student as a high one. As someone who was a low SES student, I found this a startling claim, as I don't recall extra resources being lavished on me. In fact it was only when I became an online student, with minimal resources provided, but ones expertly crafted by qualified educators, that I became a successful student.

The authors report the additional costs for SES students come from: "increasing aspiration and capital prior to university; academic, personal and financial support provided while studying; establishing, maintaining and appropriately staffing multiple university campuses, particularly in highly disadvantaged areas; and supporting highly complex student needs". Of these only three sound plausible: academic & personal support while studying and supporting highly complex student needs. 

Reducing the costs of support with good course design

One of the lessons of accessible design could be applied more broadly to support low and disadvantaged students, while reducing cost. The traditional approach was to wait for students with a disability to come forward and request assistance, the craft this for them. The modern approach is to assume there will be such students and build in access for them. This reduces the overall cost, and provides a better education for all students. Another is to provide well designed study materials and assessment items, so students know what they need to do, and nothing they don;t need to do. Other supposed costs of SES students sound like general, optional, university costs to me: 

Increasing aspiration and capital prior to university: These are programs for school students to interest them in university and empower parents. Another name for such activities is "marketing". Universities run such programs with little evidence these are of value to the students, parents, or even the university. If the cost of such programs is excessive, universities could run them jointly, if the purpose really is to benifit the students, rather than the individual university, or move them online, or simply cancel them.

Financial support provided while studying: Universities charge student fees. Any financial support provided is, in effect, a discount on the fees. Universities provide such support so as to attract, and retain high performing students, thus boosting rankings, and to meet government mandated quotas for specific disadvantaged groups. If the financial support is not meeting these goals, then the university can discontinue it and try another way to boost their rankings. In particular universities could offer flexible programs, which allow students to work and study at the same time, and provide course credit for work experience.

Campuses in highly disadvantaged areas: Curiously, the authors do not seem to think it is providing a subsidy when universities place their main campus in a high SES area, as most of Australia's older universities are, only a subsidy when a satellite campus is placed in a disadvantaged area. However, campuses at the current scale are not needed for quality education. COVID-19 showed that mass online learning is feasible, for providing quality university education is possible, with less campus use. This was, of course, already known, with distance education provided for decades. If universities wish to reduce costs, they could shut down campuses which are using high value real-estate, and open smaller ones in low cost areas. Also, rather than build their own satellite campuses, universities could form consortia, and partnerships with the VET sector, for regional shared facilities. Smaller facilities could be co-located with upper secondary schools, and public libraries.


Devlin, M., Zhang, L. C., Edwards, D., Withers, G., McMillan, J., Vernon, L., & Trinidad, S. (2022). The costs of and economies of scale in supporting students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds in Australian higher education. Higher Education Research & Development, 1-16.

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