College Choice: Support available to level the playing field

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds significantly under-represented in third level

The Leaving Certificate is often held up as the fairest way of deciding who goes to college. After all, doesn’t every student sit the same exam, all marked anonymously to the same standard?

But this overlooks a key point: while everyone does indeed sit the same set of exams, they don’t do so on a level playing field.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds remain significantly under-represented in third level, with a recent study from the Higher Education Authority showing that students from affluent backgrounds dominate high-points college courses such as engineering, finance and medicine.

When students come from communities without a strong tradition of college-going, when they can’t afford grinds, when they don’t have as much space to study at home, or where they may be helping to care for parents or siblings with a disability, it’s hard to do as well in the exams as students in families who expect their children to go to college and can invest significant time and resources in helping them to get there.

Students with disabilities also face additional hurdles in getting through an education system that is inherently designed for people with good hearing and sight, that is focused on written exams and particular learning styles and that is predicated on years of studying and working using tools that able-bodied students can easily use. Students with disabilities are also more likely to live in families with financial struggles.

But there is support to level the playing field and help address these imbalances. Dare (Disability Access Route to Education) and Hear (Higher Education Access Route) are not programmes in themselves but instead are admissions routes into college for, respectively, students with disabilities or students attending designated disadvantaged (Deis) schools.

Anna Kelly, director of access and lifelong learning at UCD, says that teachers and guidance counsellors will help inform and advise students on how to apply through the Hear and Dare processes. "You apply through the CAO form by ticking a box indicating that you want to be considered as part of Hear or Dare. It's integrated into the CAO application process and we have a communications programme that helps students, families, teachers and higher-education institutions complete the application process. Students who have disabilities and come from a disadvantaged background can apply through both processes."

Third-level institutions differ in how many places they reserve for Hear and Dare applicants, and it’s worth pointing out that not all students with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds necessarily apply through those access routes.

College Connect is a partnership between Athlone Institute of Technology, Dundalk Institute of Technology, DCU and Maynooth University to reach under-represented students and connect them to higher education courses, including Travellers, lone parents, students from one-parent families, young people who have just left care, students with disabilities, ex-prisoners, protection applicants, mature students and disadvantaged students.

“Education changes lives, but the reality is that getting to college is much more difficult for some than it is for others,” says Ayoma Bowe, communications officer at College Connect. “College Connect was set up to speak directly to people and communities who face barriers, and to show them pathways to and through college. Student diversity is not only fair, it broadens the perspectives of colleges as whole, and we’re here to help people facing multiple challenges to make that first step.”

For more information, see

Alpha Ike, Maynooth University

“I grew up in disadvantaged areas, where there weren’t many opportunities for young people, and education wasn’t pushed on us.

"The first time I heard of the higher-education access route was through my guidance counsellor at Breifne College [in Cavan], and I had great support from my foster parents too.

“I applied for computer science at Maynooth University, and worked for a year before setting foot on the campus. College appealed to me because playing GAA and soccer had made me want to be the best version of myself and to keep moving forward.

“Maynooth has a financial adviser to help make your money go further and they’re always there if we need financial aid or help with accommodation. It can be harder if you’re the first in your family to go to third level, but I’ve never felt like a fish out of water there.

“I’m now in my final year studying computer science. It has been challenging with Covid-19 but it’s also been a learning process. I think education is key. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing as long as the goal is to be the best version of yourself. It doesn’t have to be university – it could be a trade or further education – but find something you are interested in and keeping learning.”

Alpha Ike participated in My Uni Life, a five-part documentary series about under-represented groups in higher education (in collaboration with the Irish Universities Association), available on the RTÉ player.

Aoife McCabe, Royal College of Surgeons Ireland

"When transitioning from secondary school to college I was concerned about how my visual impairment may impact my learning. I needn't have worried. From the moment I set foot in RCSI, every effort has been made to accommodate me. I feel completely comfortable raising any concerns or difficulties or concerns I may have, and I know every effort will be made to come up with a solution.

“Class sizes and the size of the college campus were important [factors in making my choice]. I wanted to choose a smaller course so that I could get to know my lecturers and they could get to know me.

“As a visually impaired student the small campus size was really important to me because I didn’t want the hassle of trying to find my way around a huge campus where I’d easily get lost. With the central location of the St Stephen’s Green campus, the longest journey I have to make in college involves popping across the road.

“The support I receive from my personal tutor, the academic development team, the practice education co-ordinators and the entire school of physio means I can concentrate on my studies rather than worrying about my eyesight.

“I’m in my third year of physiotherapy now and I’m extremely happy with my choice. I’ve made friends for life here and, while we can’t quite socialise like we used to, we still manage to have fun in lectures and practicals.”

Key facts:

– Students apply to Hear and Dare through the CAO and are eligible for entry on a reduced number of Leaving Certificate points. In 2020, 61 per cent of Hear applicants met the eligibility criteria, compared with 54 per cent in 2010.

– Like all other CAO applicants, Hear and Dare applicants receive a level-eight and a level-six/seven offer.

– Research shows that students with disabilities who are also from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds face the greatest obstacles in college.

– The number of applications to Dare grew by 7.5 per cent between 2019 and 2020.

– All 25 participating higher-education institutions reserve a minimum of 5 per cent of their places for reduced-points offers for each of Dare and Hear.

– In 2020, almost one in five students who applied to CAO were assessed for Dare and or Hear eligibility, with 11,576 places offered to these applicants across the entire Irish higher-education sector.

(Information from the Irish Universities Association Dare/Hear summary report 2020, UCD, TU Dublin, NUI Galway and RCSI.)