Levelling the field for entry to college
The huge growth of a scheme to support students from disadvantaged areas to enter third-level shows what can be done, writes Katherine Donnelly
The CAO opened for applications this week and, in theory at least, it is open to all.
But the CAO cannot offer a place to someone who hasn't applied. Among those will be people who, because of some disadvantage in their lives, are under the misconception that college is only for other people.
The drop-down menu of those who don't believe college is for them include families where no one has ever attended third level and where, even in 2017, it is not discussed as an option. Another category is children or adults with a learning difficulty, disability or other special needs, who lack the confidence to take their education to the next step.
Many overcome those challenges and apply for a dream course, but, at the point of selection for entry, find themselves beaten in the race by others with more financial and/or social capital behind them, such as those who can afford grinds to help clinch those extra points.
So the system is credited with being transparent and fair to those who arrive at the line with the same points, with no danger of any favouritism that might be associated with an interview, but the journey to get there is harder for some.
Data on college entry tell us that in affluent areas 90pc to 100pc of school leavers go to college. In areas of socio-economic disadvantage, the average is 26pc, although some great work done in individual schools in raising pupils' ambitions buck that trend. Even getting to the Leaving Cert is a challenge for some. While, generally, about 90pc of those who start school sit the Leaving Cert, in disadvantaged communities, it is about 80pc.
And even when students from under-represented groups make it to college, the challenges can continue.
State-run schemes such as the Higher Education Access Route (HEAR), for applicants coming from backgrounds of socio-economic disadvantage, and the Disability Access Route to Education (DARE) seek to level out the playing field for entry by giving a limited waiver on points. Colleges also have their own programmes where they actively reach out to target groups, such as students in DEIS schools, to nurture pupils and encourage them to see college as part of their future, even planting that seed at primary level.
Both the State and colleges also fund schemes to support students post entry to college.
The five-year National Plan for Equity of Access to Higher Education 2015-19, the third of its kind, sets targets for increased participation by six different groups, including students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, first time mature students, students with disabilities, further education graduates and Irish Travellers. A mid-term review is about to get underway.
Among the initiatives under the plan is a programme specifically aimed at widening the diversity of students in teacher training programmes. Entry to the profession is dominated by young, white, Irish females and broadening that base would not only have immediate benefits for other categories of students, but would bring new role models into classrooms with the important message that teaching can be for anyone.
Another plank in supporting wider access to higher education has come with the re-introduction of maintenance grants for students on post-graduate courses, now almost deemed a pre-requisite qualification level for any career.
The challenges remain, but an insight into what can be done is visible in the way the Dublin City University (DCU) Access Scheme has grown since 1990. As one of its first acts in 1989, the governing authority of the then fledgling university decided to introduce an access programme to address low numbers attending third level from the neighbouring Ballymun area. The first six students entered DCU in 1990 as part of the pilot initiative.
Since then, 3,997 DCU students have been supported. In the current year, there are 1,300 Access students enrolled (up from 424 in 2012/13), including 360 first years.
As well as allowing entry on fewer points than is required through the CAO system, the programme offers a range of financial, social, emotional and academic supports post-entry. The access scheme works in three ways: providing entry routes for Leaving Cert students; scholarships; and an outreach programme in school communities where there is a low third-level uptake. When, in 1995, DCU targeted 16 schools in north Dublin and extended access supports to their students, the numbers increased significantly. Some 10pc of places in DCU are now allocated to students entering through DCU/HEAR Access routes.
The job of the school outreach team starts well before the Leaving Cert years. As well as working with 21 second-level schools, they have links with 41 DEIS primary schools where they work to develop positive attitudes to education and encourage pupils to see third level as a viable option.
Access Outreach Project Officer Susan Hawkins explains that they seek to engage with students at four different stages in their education, from fourth class up. "The programme is not about recruiting for DCU, it is about encouraging them to take one step on, to further education or higher education," she says.
At primary level, it may involve encouraging students to attend weekly classes in the DCU Centre for Talented Youth. Junior Cycle students are introduced to the concept of university through initiatives such as campus tours and academic taster programmes.
At transition year, they support teachers in developing student skills in areas such as technology. In Leaving Cert years, they offer a range of supports such as a schools and student mentoring.
It all takes funding which is why DCU runs telethons during which current students talk to graduates (who must register an interest in taking a call), to raise awareness about and support for its Access Scholarship Programme.
The latest telethon started this week and will run to November 25. During a similar initiative last June, 700 DCU graduates took calls.