OTTAWA—New research into what affects young people’s ability to opt for higher education has found that although cost is an important consideration, it comes second to various complex family-related influences beginning early in life.
The research is based on data from the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS) developed by Statistics Canada and Human Resources and Skills Development Canada that studied two groups of youth over nine years.
“Probably the most significant [finding] is our understanding of the factors that affect access to post-secondary education,” said Prof. Ross Finnie of University of Ottawa and Statistics Canada.
“Rather than being the narrow economic or financial factors that we thought in the past were most important, like tuition rates and student financial aid, at least in terms of affecting change at the margin or bringing new students in the system, it’s more to do with what we’ve call ‘cultural factors’ related to the family.”
These include a host of subtle, interrelated factors like a child’s experiences growing up, parental education and attitudes towards schooling, preparation that a student receives for going to college or university, and the student’s own aspirations, motivations, engagement with school, study habits, and high school outcomes.
“It’s a complex process, it starts early, and it’s rooted to a great degree in the family,” Prof. Finnie said.
Prof. Finnie is among four co-authors of “New Perspectives on Access to Post-secondary Education,” an article in Statistics Canada’s April 2010 issue of “Education Matters: Insights on Education, Learning and Training in Canada.”
The YITS studied two groups of youth as they moved from their mid-teens to their late twenties, making decisions about—and in some cases progressing through—post-secondary education while also making choices about moving into and out of the job market.
Each group was interviewed five times at two-year intervals, starting in early 2000, with the latest data referring to 2008.
Few True Dropouts
Prof. Finnie said the new data has made it possible to identify a number of important educational pathways that have previously been insufficiently understood.
For example, in addition to access to post-secondary education, another key line of research concerns students’ persistence toward post-secondary graduation. The YITS data showed that about half of all students failed to finish their initial program within five years, but only about 10 to 15 percent can be considered true dropouts.
Some switched programs, and of those who dropped out, many actually returned to school later. “A good number simply leave one institution but go to another one possibly at the same level—college or university—and they finish their studies there,” Prof. Finnie said.
Financial factors were seldom behind the decision to leave, the survey found, and family background only had a small influence, unlike the decision whether to pursue post-secondary education. The most important factors were related to students not finding a good fit for their skills and interests.
The extent of this problem calls for further research into what, if anything, can be done to improve the situation, said Prof. Finnie. It could be that students need better information or tools to help them choose their program, or they need better assistance through tough spots.
Other key ongoing research includes understanding the cost of schooling, the student financial aid system, post-secondary students’ workforce participation, and how these factors affect educational pathways.
Prof. Finnie and his co-authors, Richard Mueller of University of Lethbridge and Statistics Canada, Arthur Sweetman of Queen’s University, and Alex Usher of Higher Education Strategy Associates, also co-edited “Who Goes? Who Stays? What Matters? Accessing and Persisting in Post-Secondary Education in Canada.”
The book is a collection of analysis articles by noted Canadian contributors in the field examining choice, opportunity, and barriers related to post-secondary participation.
Prof. Finnie said it’s important to discover what policy interventions “might work to help those who don’t get a full chance to prepare for post-secondary education, or to even think about going.”
He noted a U.S. program that required graduating high school students to apply to a college or university even if they didn’t think they wanted to go. A substantial number got accepted and started realizing that post-secondary education was an option for them. The program increased the post-secondary enrolment rates.
“We need to focus our efforts at finding out what’s been tried and as best as possible to evaluate those different approaches to see what works and what doesn’t,” Prof. Finnie said.
The new research also examined the effect of high school students’ paid work. Previous research showed that a small amount seemed to correlate with higher grades while too many hours were detrimental.
However, the new data indicated that, once other individual characteristics are controlled for, “the effect of working during high school is negative, in any amount.”
On the other hand, extra-curricular activities “do seem to be good for young people,” Prof. Finnie said. “If it’s work for money, not so much.”
Beyond ensuring affordable schooling, “for researchers and policymakers, we now have to shift the focus of our interests to better explore the specific things that matter, and what policies can make a difference,” he said.