May 7, 2014 12:47 AM EDT

Students in polos and plaids streamed into the auditorium at the University of Western Sydney (UWS) as Lorde’s “Royals” blasted on repeat. While she sang about having “no post-code envy,” hundreds of low-income high school seniors and students who would be the first in their families to go to college took their seats. Ahead of them was a day of panels and information sessions on college and careers put on by Fast Forward, a UWS program that reaches out to economically disadvantaged groups.

They listened as the keynote speaker, UWS professor James Arvanitakis, told them about attending his first class — bringing a Tupperware container full of lamb so he could make friends and a passport in case he needed identification. No one in his family had ever attended university and no one knew what he should take with him.

Thanks to Fast Forward, a federally funded program started in 2004, the students at the conference will be more prepared. In 2013 half of participating high school seniors went straight on to a bachelor’s-degree program at a university. At least another 20% had plans to get into the schools through nontraditional routes such as technical education programs or preparation courses.

“Fast Forward opens up doors,” said Jaqueline Bowring, a senior-year adviser from Elizabeth Macarthur High School, who had brought more than a dozen students to the conference. “It provides information to students that they would not otherwise have access to.”

The Australian government has invested hundreds of millions into programs like Fast Forward to reach low-income, first-generation and rural students and their parents. Essentially anyone who wants to go to university can do so through a number of alternative pathways — even if he or she has done poorly in high school or dropped out. Universities have been required to increase supports for these students — to get them in and then to graduate them.

The result is that Australia does a better job than the U.S. at graduating first-generation and low-income students. In fact, Australia is one of the leaders among developed countries in social mobility, according to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Of adults ages 25 to 34, 40% of Australians whose parents did not earn a college degree have one themselves. Although the numbers are slightly inflated because of how international students are measured (and Australia has many of them), that’s double the OECD average. In the U.S., according to the OECD, just 14% of those comparable first-generation students graduate from college.

Australia also has more success with low-income students. About 30% of Australian students who are in the lowest socio-economic quintile (as defined by a variety of factors, including where they live) enroll in a university, according to the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth. Based on historical graduation rates, nearly a fifth of this quintile will earn a degree, according to estimates from the government-funded National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. By contrast, just 20% of low-income students who start college in the U.S. will stick with it through graduation — or 8% of all those in the bottom income quartile, according to research by Iowa-based Postsecondary Education Opportunity.

In all, Australia enrolls about 630,000 students in its 37 universities. Only three of those universities are private, which means the government can play a major hand in shaping policy.

The Obama Administration has called for the U.S. to lead the world college-graduate rates by 2020 but has not specified how that should occur or how to ensure the inclusion of low-income students. Right now the country enrolls about 11 million students in thousands of universities. Some states are tying funding to performance at public universities and colleges, but there is no systematic way learning institutions are held accountable for national enrollment or graduation goals.

In Australia, each university was required to sign a compact with the government detailing how its own targets and plans contribute to the government’s goals on higher education. In 2011 each school was given nearly $95 million to try to meet these goals and up to $32.5 million more for doing so. All universities were also promised a share of $946 million over five years — from the Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program — to create programs catering to disadvantaged students.

In 2012 the government lifted enrollment caps on universities, meaning they could take as many students as they could handle. “They opened up the gates,” said Sue Trinidad, director of the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education. “They wanted that social equity.” According to the center, low-income-student enrollment in higher education has risen nearly 28% since 2007, while total enrollment has increased only 20%.

Without outreach programs like Fast Forward, attending a university seems out of reach to many disadvantaged students and their parents, educators said. Take the students at the Fast Forward conference; their peers who had not been chosen to take part in the program are exposed to universities only if they attend an open house.

To be nominated to take part in the program, students either had to be from a low-income or single-parent family, be the first in their family to enter a higher-education program, have at least one unemployed parent or be in foster care. All 450 attending the conference started with Fast Forward in ninth grade and over the next three years learned about study skills and how to apply to college. They went on campus visits and were introduced to scholarship opportunities.

In February, a week into their final year of school, the students were spending a day going to sessions like “Thinking About a Career in Law?” and “How to Build an Effective Résumé.” In “Everything You Need to Know About University,” they learned about studying abroad and scholarships. A session on “Applying to Uni” attempted to debunk some myths about applying to college.

The traditional determining factor in university admissions is the Australian Tertiary Admission Rank, or ATAR, which is given to students based primarily on how well they do on a series of tests during their final year of high school. All universities have cut-off scores. If you score higher than the cut-off, you’re in. That can make the end of high school stressful, students said. But Fast Forward also had shown them there were many other ways to reach the same goal.

Salina Buk, a student at Emmaus Catholic College, always knew she wanted to go to university, but estimated that only half of her high school classmates felt the same way before their Fast Forward experience. Part of the reason they were convinced they could go is because they learned how to take advantage of other ways into university. “If we don’t get the ATAR, we can make it happen,” she said. “If we all work hard [it will] be O.K.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

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