Katherine Donnelly: 'Degrees aren't key to success for all but everyone has to have the same chance'

Not everyone wants or needs a college degree, but everyone is entitled to the same opportunity to pursue one. Nowadays about three in four Leaving Cert students apply to the CAO.

The latest report from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) confirms a lot of what we know already about who will fare best in college and who does less well.

The influences that shape the journey to and throughout third-level include gender, socio-economic status, Leaving Cert results and selecting the right course.

But what the report returns to again and again is the link between Leaving Cert points and chances of success in higher education.

It draws on other research suggesting that once students have overcome barriers to higher education admission, it is entry grades rather than social characteristics that may most strongly influence academic success.

So higher education presents the opportunity for everyone to leave beyond any real or perceived disadvantage and to blossom in their chosen path.

The problem for many is getting to those entry gates, and on an equal footing with those who have had all the advantages such as a parent reading a book to them as an infant. Not all children get that, and that is where disadvantage can start and that is where the levelling of the playing field must begin. Advances in early childhood education should help.

Advantage and disadvantage plays out in many ways throughout the education system. Students with special needs require extra resources to minimise or eliminate their particular difficulty, teachers can vary, fee-paying schools have more resources to plough into smaller classes, some parents are better able to afford to pay for grinds to give that extra edge.

Access to good guidance counselling is also key and can ensure a student is on track for the most appropriate course. Previous studies have found first-year drop-outs often say it is because they found themselves on the wrong course. The highest points courses are often seen as the preserve of those who have fewer challenges in life, and find it easer to notch up those higher grades.

As an exercise the HEA analysts selected a group of 83 courses requiring 500 or more CAO points for entry, such as medicine, dentistry, biomedical science, physics, psychology, maths, politics, engineering and architecture, for more in depth analysis around completion rates.

What they found was that on those elite courses socio-economic background was not a factor in completion. In fact the most disadvantaged students had slightly better record in finishing the course than the most affluent. Every child born in this country has the right to be a doctor or dentist, if they want to be, but the system must do more to give them all the same chance.

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