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Who goes? Who stays? Why does it matter?

AS THE POPULATION ages and the demand for highly skilled workers increases, investment in post-secondary education (PSE) is becoming more and more necessary for economic growth. Equal opportunity for high-school students to go to college or university also matters. Most Canadians believe those who have the desire and academic merit to attend a post-secondary institution should be able to.

From an economic and social justice standpoint, there’s a need for government intervention when it comes to opening up the PSE system for those groups traditionally underrepresented in college and university classrooms. So who comprises these groups, and why aren’t they making it to school? Experts on access to PSE, as well as current University of Ottawa students and recent graduates, shed some light on this topic of growing national importance.

Money isn’t everything

Over the last two decades, the steady rise of tuition fees and student debt, in addition to a decline in education spending by the government, has many student-interest groups, politicians, and policymakers focused on financial barriers to PSE. In 1991–92, the average full-time undergraduate student in Canada was paying $1,706 for one year’s tuition, while the average student in 2009–10 paid $4,917—a 188 per cent increase alongside a 38 per cent rise in the cost of living.

Despite the higher costs associated with getting a university education, the number of university graduates increased by 24 per cent since 2001. That’s not to imply money doesn’t matter when talking about access to PSE; it does, but as Ross Finnie, associate professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and director of the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI), explains, the financial barriers to education have largely been
dealt with.

“One of the things that the governments have done over time is make sure that there’s probably enough money in place for students who want to go to college and university to do so,” he says in a video interview sponsored by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO). “The whole affordability barrier—that’s probably been dealt with by good public policy.”

Many groups are fixated on reducing the costs of PSE as a solution to the perceived financial barriers to higher education. The Canadian Federation of Students’ National Day of Action on Feb. 1 highlighted rising tuition and student debt—and it’s not just student-interest groups advocating for lower fees. Earlier this year, the Liberal Party of Ontario implemented their 30 per cent tuition grant to reduce the financial burden faced by students, a move lamented not only by the student population.

“This is an example of extremely poor public policy and the triumph of politics over reasoned public policy,” says Richard Mueller, associate professor of economics at the University of Lethbridge, in an email to the Fulcrum, noting the marginal number of students the policy will bring into schools. “Given the huge cost of the program, these resources could have been better directed at other programs and policies.”

Although the disconnect between reality and policy is stark, Mueller explained the obsession with money as a barrier to education is rooted in a basic economic concept: When the price of a good goes up, the demand goes down. According to Finnie, this is an outdated way of looking at accessibility to post-secondary education.
“To go forward—to bring groups of students that are not currently attending college or university into the system—we’re going to have to go beyond those traditional measures,” he says.

Parents and the PSE culture

More detailed data sets on youth participation in PSE have unveiled a number of factors that affect a student’s decision to enter college or university, many of which are unrelated to family income. Finnie notes the importance of parental education on a child’s PSE choices.

“There’s a very strong correlation between parental education and who goes to university—and once you look at that, the income effect goes way down,” he explains. “So the interpretation is that it’s not about money.”

Parental education can shape a child’s aspirations or attitudes toward higher education through many channels. Parents who have attended a PSE institution are more likely to communicate positive thoughts about that experience; students may also be less intimidated by the idea of going to school if their parents have gone.

“There are various avenues through which these things get communicated, whether it’s those discussions around the kitchen table or letting your kid know you’ve started saving for their education,” adds Andrew Wismer, researcher at EPRI, who also worked on the Measuring the Effectiveness of Student Aid (MESA) Project. “Say you are a 13-year-old kid and your father tells you, ‘I just started saving for your education—if you decide you want to go.’ [That gets students] thinking about their grades.”

A briefing released by the MESA Project in 2010 reported low-income students whose parents never attended college or university—“first-generation” education students—are much less likely to say they always knew they would attend PSE and have parents who saved for their education compared to those with parents who have post-secondary education. They also tend to have lower grade point averages in school.

For Laurel Hogan, recent graduate of the U of O, her parents always encouraged her and her sister to pursue higher education. Her mother holds a bachelor’s degree, and her father has a bachelor of science and two master’s degrees.

“It was always presumed that I would go to university and I never questioned it,” she recalls. “When it came time to actually decide whether and where to apply at the end of Grade 11, I was already very comfortable with the idea because I’d been introduced to it practically before I could even remember.

For Hogan, her parents played a significant role in her choice to go to university.

“Through the way they raised me, and leading by example, they made it clear that PSE was an extremely worthwhile investment of time and money,” she says. “They gave me the facts, encouragement, and support, and let me decide for myself.”

Finnie notes it is more difficult for students to get those positive messages about both the university experience and the value of getting a degree when their parents haven’t had that experience to relate. Emily Hamilton, another recent U of O grad, remembers learning about her options after high school at a university fair in Grade 9—making it to university was left largely up to her.

“We never spoke about it,” she says, when asked how her parents talked about university with her. “I always felt I had more of an inner drive to push myself into higher education.”

What else matters?

A recent paper by EPRI looked at access to PSE among underrepresented and minority groups, citing parental education, disability, Aboriginal status, attending a rural high school, and coming from a low-income family as the most important determinants in whether a high-school student makes it to university. Interestingly enough, these groups are over-represented at the college level.

One of the most prevalent patterns in PSE participation is related to gender: Since the early 1990s, the percentage of women attending university has been greater than that of men. As of 2003, 38.8 per cent of 19-year-old women had attended university, compared to 25.7 per cent of their male counterparts.

Although one could chalk these numbers up to males not wanting to go to university as much as females do, Torben Drewes, professor of economics at Trent University, asks the question: “What if both males and females want to go to PSE in equal numbers?”

“High-school averages among boys are a little bit lower on average than girls,” he explains. “So when universities apply a gender-blind admission standard of, say, 80 per cent, and if both genders apply in equal proportions—we’d get the observed gender gap.”

Some of the discrepancy in grades can be explained by differences in effort when is comes to school work, but by using data on work effort and grades in high school, Drewes found boys still fall short when it comes to getting the grades—even when they work hard.

“Boys don’t work as hard as girls do, but if even they did, they’d still have grades that are lower than girls,” he says. “Somehow, boys are not able to translate their work efforts into higher high-school averages—or at least at the same rate that girls are.”

Alternatively, some segments of the population will attend university irrespective of family income, parental education, and other aforementioned characteristics. One MESA briefing reported visible minorities and children from immigrant families are more likely to go to university, study more hours per week, and cite parental pressure as a reason to persist through their degrees when compared to non-visible minorities or natural born citizens.

“The Chinese students go to university,” says Finnie of the cultural phenomenon, noting the children of Chinese immigrants have a 90 per cent attendance rate at PSE institutions. “It doesn’t matter how low family income is, there’s almost no income effect—they just go.”

Lai Hoang, recent U of O graduate currently applying for master’s programs in economics, is a Chinese-born Canadian whose parents immigrated here with very little formal education. She explains her parents played a significant role in her decision to go to school, not unlike those whose parents have attended university themselves.

“When my parents came to Canada, they didn’t have anything,” she says. “Education was a huge thing, because they didn’t have the opportunity to have that kind of education back home.”

Although her parents wouldn’t have been disappointed if she chose not to go university, Hoang says they were in the back of her mind while she completed her studies.

“They would be more disappointed if I didn’t do anything with my life, but obviously they knew [PSE] would give me that extra boost to get a job,” she explains. “I felt I needed to work a bit harder, but just because of my parents. They paid for it and worked hard; I didn’t want to do badly in school.”

Communication is key

So if these cultural barriers matter to PSE accessibility, how can we change the way they affect education outcomes? Although the idea of substituting for parental education or geographic location may seem abstract or costly, Finnie asserts the solution can be as simple as getting the message about the benefits of attending college and university to students in their early teens.

“What we have to do is—somehow—get the idea of going on to PSE into their heads when they’re young so they’re thinking in that direction and they’re preparing for that possibility down the road,” he says.

Getting school-aged children excited about university can be as simple as taking a field trip to a local university and showing them around campus, or talking to them about the benefits and opportunities associated with PSE while they’re in high school. The key is relaying the message in a way that speaks to kids—and that’s also the challenge.

“The communication of ideas doesn’t cost that much,” Finnie explains.

“At schools, there’s sunk costs that have already been paid,” adds Wismer.  “Getting kids together—well, they’re already together in a class. Having someone to speak to them—OK, there’s a teacher already there. There’s certain costs that are already covered—”

“It’s just a new message,” Finnie interjects. “Adding in to the curriculum.”

Some schools across the country have implemented early intervention programs that focus on counselling, academic enrichment, parental involvement, and mentoring designed to increase PSE access for under-represented youth, most notably the Future to Discover program in New Brunswick and Manitoba. The creation of web-based initiatives is also popular in targeting the newest generation on the path—or not—to the PSE system. Finnie is critical of approaches like these that rely on students to reach out.

“I feel pretty strongly that you have to be more proactive than that—you can’t just wait for the students to come forward, because you’ll get those who were already going in that direction,” he explains. “You need to have programs that proactively get to everyone … Information is part of it, but also how that information is presented.”

Changing the conversation on PSE access

If money is not the most significant determinant in deciding who goes on to post-secondary education, education policy—and the dialogue that shapes it—needs to evolve beyond the traditional understanding of barriers to higher education.

“Getting the word out is a lot of it,” says Finnie on changing the current public discourse regarding PSE access. “I think that requires leadership, which unfortunately we don’t always see.

For example, the recent Ontario election, the issue we’re talking about here—the election could have taken place 20, 30 years ago and it would have taken approximately the same tone.”

Focusing on monetary barriers is easy for policymakers and politicians alike, as they have financial levers at their disposal to directly tackle those obstacles.

Non-financial barriers are different. One of the biggest challenges to the evolution of education policy is justifying the usefulness of these cultural interventions.

“Culture interventions are more complicated. They involve more research and need more information on how to do them properly—how to measure if they are working,” Wismer explains, comparing these barriers to traditional ones related to money. “It’s not as easy to communicate to voters.”

“You can’t just say, ‘OK, it’s culture. Great. We got it: We got the answer, we’ve put it in place—check mark,’” adds Finnie.

Looking ahead…

Although the body of literature on access to PSE is rich and ever-expanding, researchers still have a long way to go in terms of understanding the causes and effects of what’s determining who goes to colleges and universities. Nonetheless, they remain optimistic, both about the future of their work and the Canadian PSE system.

“There has been a shift in thinking in policy circles who appear, in the last few years, to be very receptive,” says Finnie. “There is a shift going on, and that frankly, for us, is inspiring. We see our work and others as maybe having an effect.”

Mueller agreed, stating he is confident in Canada’s higher education system—despite the growing pains it has endured in the past two or three decades.

“We have to better use our resources, and this doesn’t mean that everyone needs or deserves a university education,” he writes. “We would like to see the best students succeed at university, but they have to come in the first place—this is what myself and others are trying to achieve through our research.”

—Mercedes Mueller