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Access to post-secondary education

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I recently had the chance to read a 2008 book entitled Who Goes? Who Stays? What Matters? Accessing and Persisting in Post-Secondary Education in Canada. Edited by Ross Finnie, Richard Mueller, Arthur Sweetman and Alex Usher, the anthology features 14 chapters written by a total of 21 authors.

I found chapter 4 (co-authored by Finnie and Mueller) and chapter 11 (written by Marc Frenette) to be particularly interesting.

Finnie and Mueller analyze results from the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS), where 15-year-olds, their parents and their high school administrators were interviewed in 2000; the youth were then interviewed again in follow-up surveys in both 2002 and 2004.

Some of their findings include the following:

- Gender matters. Young women across Canada have a 45% university participation rate, while young men have a university participation rate of just 31%.

- The urban-rural factor matters. Young Canadians from urban areas are far more likely to go to university than are young people from rural areas. Young men from urban areas have a 34% university participation rate, while young men from rural areas have just a 21% university participation rate. Young women from urban areas have a 47% university participation rate, while young women from rural areas have a 36% university participation rate.

- Minorities in Canada have higher PSE participation rates than non-minorities. (By "minorities," the authors include visible minorities, immigrants and linguistic minorities; in all three cases, the PSE participation rate is higher.) For example, visible minority males have a 46% university participation rate, while non-visible minority males have a 29% university participation rate. Likewise, visible minority females have a 56% university participation rate, while non-visible minority females have a 43% university participation rate.

- Provincial differences are significant. Young people from Nova Scotia, for example, are almost twice as likely to go to university as young people from Alberta.

I was quite surprised by all of the above findings.

Also, one theme that appeared throughout the book was the notion that the impact of tuition rates on PSE access is "negligible" (i.e. that demand for PSE is inelastic). Many of the authors indeed acknowledge that young people from higher-income households are more likely to attend university. For example, Frenette points out that only 31% of youth in the bottom 25 per cent of income distribution go to university, compared with 50% of youth in the top quartile. But several authors are also quick to underline the fact that this should not be attributed only to financial constraints.

The chapter by Frenette, for example, using data from the YITS, concludes that financial constraints directly explain only 12% of the gap in university attendance across income groups. More significant than household income, argues Frenette, are parental education (accounting for 30% of the gap), high school reading scores (accounting for 20% of the gap), and high school marks (accounting for 14% of the gap). That said, many of the authors, including Frenette, acknowledge that "disentangling" the above explanatory variables from one another is not an easy task -- for example, household income can have a causal influence on high school reading scores (e.g. if parents with higher incomes buy more books for their children or spend more money on daycare). And that methodological challenge, in my opinion, makes it difficult to argue that financial constraints are negligible.

There are other reasons why I think we should be skeptical in response to claims that the impact of rising tuition on PSE access is "negligible." For example, how do we explain the case of Newfoundland and Labrador (which I've blogged about here)?

Also, while rising tuition levels throughout Canada have taken place alongside rising enrolments, they have also taken place alongside rising student debt levels. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, average student debt for a four-year degree in Ontario has increased by 350% in the past 15 years. In other words, more people are going to university than in the past, and they're going in spite of the fact that the cost is rising. But they're far more broke upon graduation than they used to be.

Finally, I worry about what doesn't get measured. If (as sometimes happens) university administrators running a master's program become aware of their students' increased financial constraints and in turn shorten the length of the program (e.g. by discouraging students from pursing the thesis option), who measures the change in quality of that student's education? If a parent starts working a second job in anticipation of their son or daughter's rising tuition costs, how does one even start to measure the impact of those extra hours on the parent's health? And if students start taking on more gainful employment while attending university (in order to pay for rising tuition), who researches the impact of this on their stress levels and overall health outcomes?

While I would say this book is definitely worth the read, I find it raises as many questions as it answers.

This article was first posted on The Progressive Economics Forum.

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