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PARRAMATTA, Australia — Students in polos and plaids streamed into the auditorium at the University of Western Sydney as Lorde’s “Royals” blasted on repeat. While she sang about having “no post code envy,” hundreds of low-income high school seniors and students who would be the first in their families to go to college took their seats. Ahead of them was a day of panels and information sessions on college and careers put on by Fast Forward, a UWS program that reaches out to economically disadvantaged groups.

They listened as the keynote speaker, UWS Professor James Arvanitakis, told them about attending his first class — bringing a Tupperware container full of lamb so he could make friends and a passport in case he needed identification. No one in his family had ever attended university and no one knew what he should take with him.

Thanks to Fast Forward, a federally-funded program started in 2004, the students at the conference will be more prepared. In 2013, half of participating high school seniors went straight on to a bachelor’s degree program at a university. At least another 20 percent had plans to get into the schools through nontraditional routes such as technical education programs or preparation courses.

Australian college graduation rate
A student is interviewed by a film crew about her experience with Bridges to Higher Education, a federally funded program in New South Wales, Australia, that aims to recruit more first-generation students to college. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

“Fast Forward opens up doors,” said Jaqueline Bowring, a senior-year advisor from Elizabeth Macarthur High School, who had brought more than a dozen students to the conference. “It provides information to students that they would not otherwise have access to.”

The Australian government has invested hundreds of millions into programs like Fast Forward to reach low-income, first-generation and rural students and their parents. Essentially anyone who wants to go to university can do so through a number of alternative pathways — even if he or she has done poorly in high school or dropped out. Universities have been required to increase supports for these students — to get them in and then to graduate them.

The result is that Australia does a better job than the United States at graduating first-generation and low-income students. In fact, Australia is one of the leaders among developed countries in social mobility, according to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of adults aged 25-34, 40 percent of Australians whose parents did not earn a college degree have one themselves. Although the numbers are slightly inflated due to how international students are measured (and Australia has many of them), that’s double the OECD average. In the United States, according to the OECD, just 14 percent of those comparable first-generation students graduate from college.

Australia also has more success with low-income students. About 30 percent of Australian students who are in the lowest socio-economic quintile (based on a variety of factors including where they live) enroll in a university, according to the Longitudinal Study of Australian Youth. Based on historical graduation rates, nearly a fifth of this quintile will earn a degree, according to estimates from the government-funded National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. By contrast, just 20 percent of low-income students who start college in the United States will stick with it through graduation — or 8 percent of all those in the bottom income quartile, according to research by Iowa-based Postsecondary Education Opportunity.

In all, Australia enrolls about 630,000 students in its 37 universities. Only three of those universities are private, which means the government can play a major hand in shaping policy.

For decades, the government has provided a student loan and repayment program where students only have to pay back the loan when their income hits a certain level. And the average cost of a year at a university in Australia is about $7,700 (U.S.), about $1,000 cheaper than in-state public school tuition in the United States. Most Australians go to school in their state and live at home, avoiding room and board fees.

Australia increased its focus on diversifying higher education in 2008 when a federally commissioned report known as the Bradley Review highlighted the inequities in the system. It called for students from low socioeconomic backgrounds to make up 20 percent of higher education students by 2020. (In 2008, it was 16.3 percent.)

The Obama administration has called for the United States to lead the world in the percentage of college graduates by 2020, but has not specified how that should occur or how many low-income students should be a part of that. Right now, the country enrolls about 11 million students in thousands of universities. Some states are now tying funding to performance at public universities and colleges but there is no systematic way universities are held accountable for any national enrollment or graduation goals.

In Australia, each university was required to sign a compact with the government detailing how its own targets and plans contribute to the government’s goals on higher education. In 2011, each school was given nearly $95 million (AUD) to try to meet these goals and up to $32.5 million more for doing so. All universities were also promised a share of $946 million over five years — from the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program (HEPPP) — to create programs catering to disadvantaged students. (In mid-April 2014, the Australian dollar was valued at $0.93 U.S.)

Australian college graduation rate
Construction is underway at Edith Cowan University in Western Australia to build a sculpture garden honoring Indigenous education. Indigenous Australians, about half of whom come from low-income families, have traditionally been underrepresented at universities. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

In 2012, the government lifted enrollment caps on universities, meaning they could take as many students as they could handle.

“They opened up the gates,” said Sue Trinidad, director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. “They wanted that social equity.” According to the center, low-income student enrollment in higher education has risen nearly 28 percent since 2007, while total enrollment has increased only 20 percent.

But that progress may be hindered by some side effects of the government’s initiatives, according to Andrew Taggart, pro vice chancellor at Murdoch University in Western Australia. “The reality is that the opening up of higher education has benefited middle class kids with lower [test scores,]” he said, noting that there is little federal accountability attached to the HEPPP funding. “I’m not optimistic that the money will all be spent [well.]”

And advocates and university officials are wary of whether that funding will continue at all under the newly elected Tony Abbott government; no government officials have mentioned the 20 percent target since taking office or talked about higher education equity. Still, programs the old government helped launch — from outreach efforts like Fast Forward to a nationwide focus on the first-year experience — are now entwined in university operations.

“I just don’t think that everyone should have to go through the same path to get their dream. Not everyone has the same opportunity to do well in high school.” Michelle Adamos

Jim Misko, manager of Fast Forward, says he’s unsure how many students the program will be able to work with if federal funding is cut, but insists, “Fast Forward will keep going.”

His program is just one piece of a larger federally funded initiative in New South Wales, the most populous of Australia’s states. Five universities have banded together for a $21.2 million program called Bridges to Higher Education. Each university does outreach in a way that’s similar to Fast Forward. Bridges has also produced TV programs targeted at parents and young children showing careers available with university degrees, and sent a “drama roadshow” to middle schools to inspire students there. A similar collaboration is underway in the second-most populated state, Victoria.

Without initiatives like these, attending a university seems out of reach to many disadvantaged students and their parents, educators said. Take the students at the Fast Forward conference. Their peers who had not been chosen to take part in the program are exposed to universities only if they attend an open house.

To be nominated to take part in the program, students either had to be from a low-income or single parent family, be the first in their family to enter a higher education program, have at least one unemployed parent or be in foster care. All 450 attending the conference started with Fast Forward in ninth grade and over the next three years learned about study skills and how to apply to college. They went on campus visits and were introduced to scholarship opportunities.

In February, a week into their final year of school, the students were spending a day going to sessions like “Thinking about a career in Law?” and “How to build an effective resume.” In “Everything you need to know about University,” they learned about studying abroad and scholarships. A session on “Applying to Uni” attempted to debunk some myths about applying to college.

Australian college graduation rate
Australian students in their final year of high school take a break from hearing about career opportunities and tips for getting into college at the annual Fast Forward conference. The federally funded program tries to boost low-income and first-generation student enrollment in higher education. (Photo: Sarah Butrymowicz)

The traditional determining factor in university admissions is the Australian Tertiary Admissions Rank, or ATAR, which is given to students based primarily on how well they do on a series of tests during their final year of high school. All universities have cut-off scores. If you score higher than the cut-off, you’re in. That can make the end of high school stressful, students said. But Fast Forward also had shown them there were many other ways to reach the same goal.

Salina Buk, a student at Emmaus Catholic College, always knew she wanted to go to university, but estimated that only half of her high school classmates felt the same way before their Fast Forward experience. Part of the reason they were convinced they could go is because they learned how to take advantage of other ways into university. “If we don’t get the ATAR, we can make it happen,” she said. “If we all work hard [it will] be okay.”

Alternative pathways to university have been part of Australia’s longstanding effort to make higher education less elite, but have grown more popular in recent years as the government pushed for higher enrollment. Trinidad estimated that about half of all students are now entering universities through alternative routes, and they are likely more common among low-income students.

Students could first go to a technical and further education program, the Australian equivalent of community college, and get guaranteed transfer to universities if they finished. Some universities hold spots for principal recommendations or allow students to enroll by submitting a portfolio. People older than 21 — including those who dropped out of high school — can get in by passing an aptitude test that requires no test prep. Some schools let students try a semester of classes even if their test scores aren’t high. If they prove they can do the work, they’re in.

One of the most common options now is a university preparation course, in which students spend their first semester working on study skills, learning academic writing and reviewing high school math. It’s particularly important to have such an option in a state like Western Australia, where, according to Taggart, only 39 percent of students graduate from high school on a university track.

Most Australian students thrive in such courses, say administrators at universities in Western Australia. In part, that’s because of broader supports that are built in. Part of the government’s funding has been earmarked to boost already high retention rates, and does so by focusing on the first-year experience. One study found that nearly 90 percent of domestic students return for their second year of college. (In the U.S. that number is about two-thirds.)

For instance, at Edith Cowan University, which primarily caters to low-income and nontraditional students, staff members are diligent about calling students to make sure they know what resources are available. The staff has also been trained in how to teach low-income and first-generation students, based on a report by the Australian Department of Education.

Michelle Adamos, once a student and now a teacher in the university preparation class, said that the class is a major factor in later success.

Adamos was the first in her family to get a college degree, even though she initially had no interest in doing so and did poorly in her final two years in high school. She enrolled in the alternative university prep program to see if she liked college and got a scholarship to pay for the $1,000 fee. (The course is now offered free.)

“It all started to look very bright for me,” she said. “It was easy.”

When she completed the four courses — math, computing, academic writing and basic skills — she started in on a criminology degree and found herself ahead of many of her peers. The academic writing course, in particular, helped the most.

“I just don’t think that everyone should have to go through the same path to get their dream,” she said, noting that such programs can help make up for inequities in earlier education. “Not everyone has the same opportunity to do well in high school.”

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