Financial burden and geographic isolation remain major barriers for area students going to college

Isabella Smith always knew she wanted to go to university but, having grown up in the regional town of Griffith in New South Wales, she wasn’t sure her dream would come true.

Ms Smith said the financial burden of accommodation and university fees was the “big hurdle” to staying away from home, with some of her peers unable to choose when they started.

“Some have decided to work for a few years to have some money under their belt so that they have the flexibility to eventually move and be able to afford the costs associated with college,” she said.

“I was lucky enough to get a scholarship through the Country Education Foundation (CEF)…without their support I would be lost.”

Ms Smith became the first in her family to attend university and said that without financial support and guidance from teachers and guidance counselors she may never have had the opportunity to study psychology at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst.

A scholarship allowed Ms. Smith to continue her studies.(Provided: Isabella Smith)

“I was around 15 when Griffith experienced a real spike in suicide rates. It really sparked my desire to become a psychologist and work in a remote area,” she said.

“It was just heartbreaking to see the impact on the community – it made me want to study psychology and make a difference.”

Ms Smith chose to study in Bathurst rather than accept a place at a university in Melbourne. She plans to return to an area to work as a psychologist when she graduates.

“Whether in Griffith or elsewhere, I want to stay in regional communities where resources and access to mental health facilities are at their lowest.”

Young woman standing outside Charles Sturt University
Isabella Smith says the support she has received has given her the tools to succeed.(Provided: Isabella Smith)

Students ignoring financial aid

The Country Education Foundation surveyed 968 scholarship applicants and found that half of them did not know they were eligible for government aid.

Nicole Wright, head of impact and communications, says more accessible information is needed.

“Government support is amazing, but can be quite complex and difficult to manage,” she said.

“There are supports available like Tertiary Access Payments and Youth Allowance, but many of our students are initially not eligible for Youth Allowance…until they are out at university and work for 12 months.

“Eligibility criteria could perhaps better support our regional students who need to relocate and live independently almost immediately.”

Education Minister Jason Clare was not available for comment. A spokesperson said in a statement that the initiatives are being promoted through several means, including targeted social media campaigns and through educational service providers.

“We continue to work with state and territory education authorities to ensure that all students can access a high-quality school education, wherever they live,” the statement said.

Older woman standing with two teenage students
FEC’s Juliet Petersen with fellows Jorja Waring-Bryant and Thomson Fleming.(Supplied: CEF)

Funding for underrepresented cohorts

Last week, the Labor government announced $485.5 million in funding for 20,000 additional university places for students from underrepresented backgrounds. This includes local students, First Nations students, students living with disabilities and those who are the first in their families to attend university.

Applications open this month for higher education providers to compete for additional places in skills shortage areas like education, health, engineering and technology.

Chris Ronan, president of the Society for the Provision of Education in Rural Australia, said the initiative was “a welcome and positive step in the right direction”, but wanted to see it expanded.

“People from regional and rural, Indigenous and low-income backgrounds don’t necessarily only study education, health, engineering and technology,” he said.

“They should be able to study any degree from any university in Australia.”

A man with dark hair and a short beard, dressed in a white collared shirt
Chris Ronan believes the key to overcoming regional barriers to education is empowering students.(Provided: Chris Ronan)

Mr Ronan said research by the National Center for Student Equity in Higher Education found that students across the region are hungry for practical advice.

“Students didn’t like universities coming in and talking about aspiration because those aspirations were there,” he said.

“What they wanted was pragmatic information such as: How do I get a bus when I’m in town? How do I budget? What will my rent be?

“Funding and distance are the two biggest hurdles…governments think that providing more access or providing more places will solve this problem.

“It’s a tool but it’s not the solution in itself.”

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