Our poorest students have been hit the hardest by changes to University Entrance, with up to 50 per cent fewer pupils making it over the new threshold in low-decile areas.
Full National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) results are out, revealing a school-by-school breakdown of last year's academic achievement.
They show that while some schools in deprived areas are making huge gains, in many cases university is now a step too far for disadvantaged kids.
The changes to University Entrance (UE), brought in by the Government last year, have also affected universities, with 960 fewer students enrolling across six of the eight providers this year.
But experts fear some students are missing out because of schools' resourcing as opposed to teenagers' academic ability.
Universities New Zealand director Chris Whelan said about half the drop in university enrolments was attributable to the higher standards, introduced to ensure only those suited to further academic study were accepted into university programmes.
The changes mean students must have 60 credits at Level 3, rather than 42, and that they must have 14 credits in three approved subjects rather than two.
While educators agree it is beneficial to ensure students who continue to university succeed, they warn the drop in achievement at low-decile schools is concerning.
"From our perspective we want academic ability to be the key determinant as to whether someone goes to university," Mr Whelan said.
"But the test for us will be to make sure we haven't arbitrarily put in place a hurdle to get over that's not practical for some schools."
At least 10 Auckland schools rated decile 3 or lower, mainly in South Auckland, had up to 40 per cent fewer students pass UE last year. But those same schools, such as James Cook High School and Mangere College, had big jumps in pass rates across other NCEA levels.
Nationally, 20,578 people gained UE last year, down from 24,940 in 2013.
Secondary Principals Association chairman Allan Vester, principal at decile 4 Edgewater College, said the results were "entirely predictable".
"Lower decile schools would have found themselves in a bind."
For many it was a juggle between getting NCEA Level 3 with a non-approved UE subject, or risking going for UE but not achieving Level 3.
Labour tertiary education spokesman David Cunliffe said the drop in UE pass rates was a "giant shambles" linked to poor communication around the changes, and some schools pushing students towards "softer" subjects earlier on.
A spokesman for Education Minister Hekia Parata said the changes were necessary to ensure university students were equipped for study and prevent them dropping out lumped with student loans.
Ambitious student up to the task
Colin Chan Chui, 17, is hoping to study medicine at the University of Auckland next year.
The Onehunga High School head boy, who is sitting NCEA level three subjects this year, achieved an overall endorsement with excellence in level two last year.
"Level two was quite challenging, but in the end I got the results I wanted," he said.
Colin also believed the exams had been more difficult than in past years based on the previous exam papers he studied.
Of the six level two subjects he sat - English, maths, physics, chemistry, biology and outdoor education - the chemistry external had been the hardest, he said.
"I did heaps of practice questions from past papers and last year I thought chemistry was my strongest subject, but when I went to the exam, I was answering questions which I'd never seen in the past papers."
This year, Colin was trying to juggle his studies with extra-curricular activities and leadership roles.
"I'm trying to take on extra internals so I can endorse level three before I get to the externals [exams]," he said.
Tougher university entrance standards had not been a concern, Colin said.
"This year I'm taking geography, maths, biology, chemistry, physics."
Of the three internal assessments he had sat this year, two were achieved with excellence, he said.
The result for the third internal assessment was still pending.
"I'm just confident that I'll still do well this year, well enough to get university entrance."
- Teuila Fuatai