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The Paradox of Uneven Access: How Canadian Postsecondary Institutions Have Room to Grow

12/02/20   |  
Graeme Owens, EVP & Country Manager at Keypath Education Canada

I’ve been writing about the challenges facing the postsecondary sector in Canada and how the pandemic has laid bare significant existing gaps in the system — and those that will develop in the pandemic’s aftermath. But one of those gaps is actually — paradoxically — an opportunity for growth in the post-recession era: the uneven access to postsecondary education in Canada.

To be fair, Canada has come a long way in terms of access to education. Institutions have done important work to attract and enrol students from different walks of life, making Canada the leader in postsecondary attainment among countries within the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

For example, in just the six-year period of data collection for each of the 2006 and 2016 Census, the number of women between the ages of 25 and 34 who had earned a bachelor’s degree or more rose from 33% to 41%. 2016 was also the first time that women earned over half of all doctorates issued in Canada to students between the ages of 25 and 34. The number of single mothers with a bachelor’s degree or higher also rose over six years from nearly 15% to just over 20%.

New Canadians are also increasingly participating in the postsecondary system. As of 2016, nearly 32% of people who came to Canada as refugees had attained their highest level of education within Canada. 22% of refugees who came to Canada as adults continued their postsecondary education here, as did around 20% of immigrants admitted to Canada through economic and family-based immigration.

Over the course of this census period, Indigenous learners also saw an increase in postsecondary education attainment levels, with the percentage of learners earning a bachelor’s degree rising from 7.7% in 2006 to 10.9% in 2016. College diploma rates also rose over the same period from 18.7% to 23%.

All of this is very good news for educational opportunity in Canada.

What these statistics leave out, however, is the rising cost of pursuing on-campus education and the barrier it creates for prospective low-income students of all backgrounds. While student enrolment climbed by over half a million students between 2001 and 2014, the gap in enrolment between students from the top income quintile and the bottom income quintile remained relatively stable. By 2014, nearly 79% of 19-year-olds from the wealthiest families were enrolled in postsecondary compared to just 47% of those from Canada’s poorest families.

In addition to income, postsecondary education attainment is also often impacted by lived experiences. For example, while the number of Indigenous learners who earned a bachelor’s degree or college diploma rose to 10.9% and 23% respectively, access to postsecondary is not equally shared by those living on reserves. People living on reserves are nearly half as likely to have completed a bachelor’s degree than First Nations people with Registered Indian status who live elsewhere.

While women who are single parents have made gains when it comes to postsecondary attainment, they are just half as likely as married or common law women to have earned a bachelor’s degree.

And all women — despite making up a majority of students enrolled in postsecondary studies — still trail men when it comes to participation in STEM programs, making up less than half all doctorates being awarded in these fields.

While the cost of postsecondary tuition remains a barrier, especially as the cost continues to rise, it is not the only roadblock for low-income families. Rent is often a larger expense than tuition while transportation and food also impact any savings students might have which is why, by 2016, approximately 39% of postsecondary students experienced food insecurity. When you add it all up, studying away from home increases annual postsecondary costs from an average of $9,300 to around $20,000. So, these significant costs need to be part of any discussion of access.

Postsecondary institutions and governments began this century believing that massively increasing enrolment would lift all boats, expanding access to those missing from classrooms across the country and leveling the playing field for workers from all backgrounds in the new knowledge economy. It’s clear there remains more work to be done.

Therein lies an opportunity. Where some see a lack of access, others see an untapped market. Rather than relying chiefly on international students for growth, postsecondary institutions could attract more domestic students by evolving the ways they reach those students.

Get in touch with us if you're interested in learning more.

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn