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When it comes to higher education, a little goes a long way

***Reposted with permission from MCERA***

New research shows that even an incomplete Bachelor’s degree has benefits.

Approximately 1 million Australians have started, but not completed, a Bachelor’s degree. This phenomenon is often stigmatised and viewed as a failure of public policy.

This is neither new nor unique, with levels of incompletion remaining steady over the past few decades and on par with our OECD comparators. Yet concerns around university “drop outs” are often based on assumptions, with very little research done into the actual results of partial completion.

New research on this question reveals that even a partially completed Bachelor’s degree has private and public value. Michael Luckman and Andrew Harvey are researchers from La Trobe’s Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity. They used data from 27,846 households in the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ 2015 Multipurpose Household Survey to produce their findings.

Michael Luckman explains that “overall, our data suggest that far from being ‘drop-outs’ and ‘failures’, Bachelor non-completers appear to gain some financial benefits from partially completing a Bachelor level qualification.”

Bachelor non-completers reported substantially higher incomes than those who obtained similar levels of education but had not attempted a Bachelor’s degree. Median incomes of year 12 graduates who had attempted Bachelor’s degree were $7500 more than those of year  12 graduates who had not. A similar wage difference was observed between VET qualifications holders who had and had not attempted Bachelor’s degrees.

“This has important implications for the public funding of higher education. While it remains financially beneficial to complete a Bachelor degree, the perceived losses incurred by taxpayers from non-completion do not appear to be as severe as may have been expected,” said Mr Luckman

47.6 per cent of Bachelor non-completers reported a yearly income above the $54,000 HELP repayment threshold in 2015, which is only 9 percentage points lower than the 56.5 per cent of Bachelor completers who reported a yearly income above the repayment threshold.

Luckman and Harvey also found that most Australians with an incomplete Bachelor’s degree had completed a different post-secondary qualification. This is consistent with their previous research which shows around half of students who withdraw from higher education before completing their degree will return within 8 years.

“As such, our analysis shows the student life cycle is more complex than is generally assumed. Increasingly, we see that students are transitioning between sectors, institutions and courses,” they said.

“Surveys of students who have stopped studying show the reasons for withdrawal are complicated. Often it is a combination of factors that lead to someone leaving higher education.”

“There is substantial evidence to suggest that withdrawal is more often associated with personal factors, such as change of career, health issues and financial and employment commitments. This is opposed to factors which are directly controlled by institutions, such as the quality of the educational experience.”

“So while institutions should act to continuously improve the quality of their teaching and provide support to students who are at risk of discontinuing, some level of discontinuation is inevitable. Universities need to avoid stigmatising students who discontinue, but also to consider them as potential future students.”

“Indeed, institutions could improve long-term completion rates and enrolments by re-enrolling students when their circumstances have changed.”

“Bachelor non-completers represent a sizeable potential market of enrolments, and while some institutions are increasingly working to re-enrol withdrawn students, more could be done to encourage partial completers to return and complete their qualifications.”

“Given changes to the way many people now experience higher education, governments and higher education institutions need a greater understanding of non-linear pathways to University as well as the interim stages between enrolments. They also need to address unhelpful language and stigmas around those that leave higher education.”


Michael Luckman & Andrew Harvey (2018): The financial and educational outcomes of Bachelor degree non-completers, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, DOI: 10.1080/1360080X.2018.1553106

For more information or an interview, please contact Michael Luckman at The Centre for Higher Education Equity and Diversity Research on 0422 689 311 or at

MCERA, an independent, not-for-profit organisation, provides a conduit through which education research and researchers are made more accessible to the media to help improve public understanding of key education-related issues. We provide journalists with expert, independent and accessible insights from education researchers and practitioners. Any views expressed by the experts we consult are not necessarily those of MCERA or its staff.

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