Lifting some of the barriers to college
Paths to third level are easing for disadvantaged students, but there's more to do. Katherine Donnelly reports
About 2,000 school-leavers now enter college every year via the CAO on lower points than their peers thanks to national schemes designed to help students to overcome a financial, social or educational disadvantage that may hinder their studies or career ambitions.
But could that figure be higher? For sure.
Progress has been made in boosting the number of students from under-represented groups attending college through two schemes known as DARE and HEAR, but a new report also points to scope for improvement.
The DARE HEAR Facts and Figures Report 2017 signposts avenues for the authorities to explore. It also highlights how students may be excluding themselves because they don't follow through with their application and, in that context, the next week is crucial because April 1 is the deadline for the submission of supporting documents.
DARE offers reduced points places to school-leavers who, as a result of having a disability, ongoing medical condition such as diabetes, or a learning difficulty such as dyslexia, have experienced additional educational challenges.
The focus of HEAR is to encourage more students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds into third-level by offering places on reduced points as well as in-college supports.
Eligibility for either scheme does not guarantee a place, but it does offer insurance by opening up an alternative route, with entry to a second competition for reserved places on lower points.
Typically, the points waiver is around 5pc-10pc, so a DARE/HEAR entrant to a course with a published cut-off of 500 CAO points may get a place with 450-475 points.
Some 20 third-level colleges, including all the universities, participate in DARE and/or HEAR. New to it this year are IADT Dun Laoghaire, IT Carlow and Limerick IT. Colleges that have not joined, or at least not yet, have individual schemes to encourage access for students suffering disadvantage.
Irish Universities Association (IUA) Director General Jim Miley says the universities want their campuses to reflect the diversity of the communities in which they are located.
"Through DARE and HEAR, there is now good participation by students with disabilities and students from under-represented socio-economic groups in Irish universities and other higher education institutions," he says.
The new report, compiled by the IUA's DARE HEAR unit, provides useful insights. It tells us, for instance, that in 2016, 1,010 HEAR eligible applicants accepted a reduced-points offer. The equivalent figure for DARE was 819.
Those figures tell only part of the story. Many DARE/HEAR applicants do not need the back-up of reduced points and gain entry to their course through the standard CAO competition, often achieving very high points, up to the maximum 625.
According to report author Dr Siobhan Nic Fhlannchadha, about 24,000 DARE/HEAR eligible applicants have accepted a place in a participating college since the schemes were launched nationally in 2009, some on reduced points and others on or above the cut-off points.
In 2016, of the 4,221 eligible HEAR applicants, 3,565 received a CAO offer. Alongside the 1,010 who accepted a reduced-points place, 1,002 accepted a standard CAO offer while 939 took a place in a college not participating in these schemes.
Some 3,076 met the criteria for DARE and the offers/acceptances pattern was broadly similar. What is particularly noteworthy here is how a loosening of the rules in 2016, including a change in emphasis from a diagnosis itself to its impact on the student's education, led to a big increase in applications and offers. This report, and more recent data from the CAO, show a year-on-year increase of about 20pc in applications for DARE since 2015.
The new DARE criteria were partly a response to concerns that students from well-off backgrounds were in a better position to afford the required medical/psychological assessment to support their application. There is now a lot more flexibility around this process. As an example, a GP, rather than a consultant, can verify a student's diagnosed condition, such as a mental health issue or a blood disorder. Encouragingly, there has been a substantial increase in the number of schools with designated disadvantaged status with at least one applicant to DARE. There has also been a leap in applicants declaring a mental health issue.
The HEAR trajectory is different. After a surge between 2009 and 2014, demand plateaued and, according to CAO data for 2018, may fall significantly this year. The reason is unclear, but it may be linked to economic recovery and the availability of jobs for school-leavers or an improvement in family finances, which means they no longer satisfy the income criterion.
Nic Fhlannchadha says they will have to wait to see how many of those who indicated interest will pursue the HEAR application and submit their documents "before we can assess the real change in application numbers from 2017 to 2018". A key requirement here for current applicants is the submission of Revenue documents for the year 2016.
Notwithstanding the positives, the report raises issues, including why some DARE/HEAR applicants don't get an offer, even though they meet the entry requirements for their chosen course.
"Around 85pc of eligible applicants get an offer, but we want to look more closely at those who are eligible but who aren't getting an offer," says Nic Fhlannchadha.
Then there are the applicants "who fill in the form, but don't get to the point of sending documents; unless we receive the documents, we cannot assess the application," she says.