What is an ATAR and what does this have to do with income?

Cross-post from Substack.

Look I’m from New Zealand – so when everyone around me started talking about ATARs I just smiled and nodded.

In fact I probably couldn’t talk to most people in New Zealand about education. I’m from the “pre-NCEA” era – where a single end of year exam for five courses, scaled to fit a within-course normal distribution, determined most of anything. As a result, these more complex design criteria are well outside of my lived experience.

But it turns out ATARs are a very important part of an individuals assessment in Australia – providing a measure of how well a student performed relative to their peers, and determining their university admission.

This raises a question – how is a good performance on your ATARs associated with future earnings? Luckily for us Elyse Dwyer and Silvia Griselda at e61 decided to find out.

tl;dr a higher ATAR is associated with higher average earnings – but there is significant variability in income by ATAR. As a result, even though we’d expect the type of person who receives a higher ATAR to end up with higher earnings at 30, there is a lot more going on under the hood.

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Can we blame universities for inequality in educational attainment?

I can see where this article is coming from.  Inequality in educational attainment can translate into inequality in incomes.  If people from poor households have lower educational attainment then we have a generational link between low incomes, which implies lower income mobility.  This is something that we may find unjust.

Why do I say “may”, well this depends on the cause doesn’t it – why does this inequality exist.

Now I don’t disagree that educational attainment is associated with income inequality, and the narrowing of gaps in educational attainment has been associated with lower income inequality.  I also don’t disagree that, looking at a person in isolation, lower mobility can be associated with lower opportunity.

But I am from a low income area and I am not sure we can blame universities for the fact that they primarily have students from higher deciles.

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On school spending and teachers pay

Interesting.  Education, and schooling attainment, seems to be a big issue over here in NZ as well – with a political consensus that we care about this issue, but conflict about “how” school quality relates to this (or is even measured).  So lets have a chat.

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State schooled pupils and Oxbridge entry

In The Telegraph, Julia Hartley-Brewer claims that the low percentage of state-schooled pupils accepted by Oxford and Cambridge represents a failure of state schools. Her argument is that Oxford and Cambridge have high entry standards and independently-schooled pupils are far more likely to meet them, hence the strong representation of those pupils at the top institutions.

She’s partly right. She’s right that independently schooled pupils perform better at A-levels, on average. It’s also true that Oxford and Cambridge have very high entry standards, which favours independently-schooled pupils. However, that does not fully explain the low rate of admission for state-schooled pupils.

It’s fairly easy to check because the percentage of state-schooled pupils admitted is one of the Performance Indicators published by HESA each year for all universities. The indicators helpfully include a benchmark that accounts for, among other things, the entry qualifications of students. That means we can compare the actual state-schooled intake for each university against a benchmark that takes Ms Hartley-Brewer’s concerns into account, along with other considerations, such as age, ethnicity and sex.

The chart below shows that we would not expect Oxford and Cambridge to take a high proportion of state-schooled pupils, largely because of their high entry requirements. However, even against that adjusted benchmark, they underperform.

Young participation in UK higher education

HEFCE publish some great maps of participation in higher education and, even better, release the data. I’ve reproduced the map of young participation rates below with a slightly finer grained, sequential colour map, which I think helps to pick out the regions of low participation. Areas where fewer young people progress to higher education are highlighted in red.

School choice and paternalism

There is a very interesting report out from the Social Market Foundation that investigates the characteristics parents value in a school. The core result is that less-wealthy families do not choose schools on the basis of academic achievement:


This leads the SMF to express concern that school choice may not lift educational achievement because some parents do not consider it important. They then recommend Government intervention to promote the primacy of academic success. The line they’re treading between free choice and paternalism is a fine one. One the one hand, they want free school choice to improve the quality of schooling. On the other hand, they have a prescriptive view of what school quality means. Read more