Parents often invest huge sums in private education for their children. But as University of Canberra research fellow Jennifer Chesters explains, the evidence for benefits at university or later in life is lacking.
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In a recent article for The Conversation, Barbara Preston examined the link between type of school attended and progress at university. Barbara concluded that after controlling for tertiary entrance score, university students from government schools outperformed students from private schools.
This finding suggests that paying for an expensive private school education might not be the best preparation for university study. If this is the case, perhaps parents paying private school fees are looking for longer term pay-offs for their investment.
So who has more success after university?
I analysed data from the 12th wave of the Household Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) project to examine the longer-term outcomes of attending private schools. For the analysis, I selected one respondent aged between 25 and 34 years per household. The majority of young people have completed their education by the age of 25 and are settled in their careers by the age of 34.
Preliminary analysis shows that individuals who attended Catholic or independent schools were more likely to have completed Year 12 and to have graduated from university, after controlling for the effects of parents' education, age and sex.
But are there differences in labour market outcomes? Here the type of private school is important. Although those who attended a Catholic school were, on average, 1.3 times more likely to be employed on a full-time basis compared to those who attended a government school, former independent school students were no more likely to be employed full-time than those who attended a government school after controlling for the effects of level of education, sex and age.
This result seems to suggest that paying private school fees is no guarantee of securing full-time employment. Given that women in this age cohort are in their prime child-bearing years, I also looked at the effect of interactions between sex and type of school attended; sex and age; and sex and level of education to determine whether there are differences between men and women. As expected, women were less likely than men to be employed full-time.
Next, I examined the earnings of those employed full-time according to type of school attended, controlling for the effects of sex, age and level of education. When it comes to weekly earnings, having attended a private school rather than a government school has no effect.
So there would seem to be no return on the parents' investment in terms of the earnings of their offspring.
Perhaps parents were seeking to ensure that their offspring secured jobs with high levels of prestige in order to maintain their social status. After taking into account the effects of level of education, sex and age, having attended a Catholic school is associated with higher, on average, levels of occupational prestige than having attended a government school. On average, attendance at an independent school is not associated with higher levels of occupational prestige.
So why choose a private school?
A closer examination of university graduates may shed some light on this paradox. Of the individuals who had completed a university-level qualification, those who had attended an independent school were more likely to have graduated from a Group of Eight (Go8) university compared to those who attended a government school. However, individuals who had attended a Catholic school were no more likely to have graduated from a Go8 university. Perhaps parents expect that graduation from an elite university would provide a pathway into a higher-paying career.
For university graduates employed on a full-time basis, graduation from a Go8 university had no effect on occupational prestige after taking into consideration the effects of sex, age and type of school attended. There was no pay-off for graduation from a Go8 university in the form of increased earnings, nor did type of school attended have any effect, after controlling for the effects of age, sex and field of study.
These results must call into question the wisdom of paying private school fees, particularly for independent schools whose fees can be anywhere from $20,000 to $34,000 a year. The massive growth in the number of private schools since the 1990s may be having the effect of diluting the advantages perceived to be attached to private schooling.
If, as these results suggest, there is no long-term advantage to be gained from paying to attend an independent school, why do parents stretch their family budgets to pay private school fees? In a climate where university fees are set to rise, parents across the country may start asking themselves this very question.
Jennifer Chesters is a Research Fellow at University of Canberra. She does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.