Ross Finnie, Richard E. Mueller, Arthur Sweetman, and Alex Usher, eds., Who Goes? Who Stays? What Matters? Accessing and Persisting in Post-Secondary Education in Canada (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2009).
A successful post-secondary education (PSE) system is seen as a requirement if Canada wants to be a player in the international knowledge economy. PSE credentials also carry the promise of better labour market opportunities and greater income for individual recipients. For all its appeal, however, there remain gaps in who accesses PSE, who successfully graduates, and what kinds of PSE (university versus college) are sought. Tuition and financial aid are frequently blamed for the consistent gaps in access, gaps centred on family income; however, occasional freezes on tuition rates and increases in government spending have not corrected this gap. It is against this context that the editors of this collection—Who Goes? Who Stays? What Matters? Accessing and Persisting in Post-Secondary Education in Canada—seek to bring together the most up-to-date data with relevant, “evidence-based” policy suggestions.
Threaded throughout this collection of essays is a discussion about the extent to which finances influence student access and persistence. The book is informed by what the editors call their ‘research model’, which is in response to the (arguably unsuccessful) ‘policy model’. Whereas the policy model focuses on students’ frequently discussed inability to afford tuition as a barrier to PSE access and persistence, the research model expands the focus to include what the editors call “soft barriers”— factors tied to family background. For example, a soft barrier might be poor performance on standardized reading tests, which is associated with lower levels of parental education. Using this broadened perspective makes clear that focusing on financial aid is simply too narrow.
Each chapter, with one exception, draws on the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS), a longitudinal data set that follows two cohorts of Canadian youth, making it possible to follow their pathway through high school and, in many cases, PSE. The data set was created as a remedy to the dearth of rich, Canadian data sources that would enable researchers to answer questions about why some students do (or do not) pursue PSE, what pathways they follow in accessing or persisting through PSE, and what impact educational investments—such as government scholarships and bursaries—have on students’ PSE decisions and progress. The authors of each chapter make a compelling case for the YITS’s strength in addressing their particular questions and use a variety of data analysis techniques to reach their findings.
Following an introductory chapter, a literature review, and a chapter discussing the data, the remainder of the book is divided into three sections: access, persistence, and financial issues. Many of the findings are worth highlighting. The access section contains four chapters, the first of which looks at how student backgrounds influence access to college and university. The authors, Finnie and Mueller, want to go beyond the conventional wisdom among economists that tuition is the most significant barrier to access, and they do so by looking at factors connected to family background. While parental income is initially strongly related to PSE access, this effect is substantially diminished when parental education is taken into account; higher levels of parental education increase the probability that students will attend university and reduces the possibility they will attend college. This effect is even further reduced once other factors, such as secondary school grades and standardized reading tests scores, are introduced into the model. Parental education operates through these ‘soft’ barriers to PSE access. It’s worth noting that it’s not conventional wisdom among sociologists that tuition levels are the most significant barrier to PSE access; family background factors have been a dominant aspect of the sociology of education literature for decades, and this chapter could have drawn on that sociological literature.
The second chapter in the access section, written by Christofides, Hoy, Li, and Stengos, devotes attention to aspirations for attending university, comparing boys to girls. That females have surpassed males in their attendance rates in universities across Canada (and in other parts of the world) has captured the attention of many researchers, and this chapter inserts itself into that issue. The authors find that girls have greater aspirations than boys at age 15. At age 17, girls’ aspirations have grown stronger. The authors conclude by calling for more research into why boys and girls have different university aspirations at age 15; knowing more about why this difference in aspirations exists could lead to policy to close the gap.
The third chapter looks at the gender gap in university attendance (a gap which doesn’t exist at the college level), focusing on a possible link between the gap and a variety of student characteristics. The authors, Frenette and Zeman, find that three-quarters of the gender gap in university participation can be explained by females’ better high school marks, better study habits, and greater parental expectations, among other things. The chapter doesn’t conclude with any policy recommendations, which is disappointing considering the consistently growing gap in equality of access by gender.
The final chapter in the access section of the book looks at the effect of participating in school and non-school (such as the labour market) activities on academic performance. The author, Hansen, finds that working has a negative impact on academic performance; the strongest negative effect is in the younger grades and increases as the number of hours increase. Interestingly, the author finds that working a minimal amount of hours doesn’t have a negative effect, but it doesn’t have a positive one either. In contrast to paid employment, participating in school activities has a positive impact on academic performance. Putting the issue of causality aside (although the author does speak to ways to address this problem), these findings have clear policy implications for supporting school activities and encouraging students to avoid paid employment. In this chapter as well, the authors could have integrated the large sociological literature on the subject.
Students having access to PSE is no guarantee they will graduate; the second section of the book examines the issue of persistence. The first chapter in this section, written by Finnie and Qiu, looks at dropout rates. One of the strengths of the YITS data is the ability to look at “non-traditional” students, meaning students who eventually graduate but not in the traditional path of their college or university. In doing so, the authors find that there isn’t as large a persistence problem as others have found, based on limited data. They conclude by suggesting avenues for future research to uncover some of the factors that might lead some to take a non-traditional path. Their preliminary analysis suggests a variety of reasons, with only a minority of sampled youth mentioning finances. This is another example of not integrating the sociological literature on the subject, which could help in developing answers about the variety of reasons behind non-traditional paths.
The second chapter in this section looks at transitions, focusing on staying in and moving out of one’s first program and the implications this has for persistence through to graduation. The author, Martinello, identifies a number of factors, such as gender and source of PSE funding, that matter to varying degrees depending on whether the PSE sector is university or college (or CEGEP in Quebec) and whether the student is in their first or second program. In finding that many students receive credentials even after switching out of their first program, the author argues that stopping the first program to switch programs or institutions should not be seen as a failure, and PSE persistence and completion could be improved by improving students’ decisions about their first program.
The final chapter in this section is the only chapter that doesn’t make use of the YITS data; Andres and Adamuti-Trache use the 15-year longitudinal Paths on Life’s Way data set, sampled from youth in British Columbia. They look at the impact of finances on persistence in light of other life events, such as marriage, having kids, and buying a home, all in the context of the various changes to PSE in British Columbia that took place over the course of the study. This chapter provides useful policy suggestions, rooted in some of the study’s most important findings: for example, endorsing government-based funding that can be repaid without serious penalty for those students who do not complete in the minimum amount of time, since not completing in the minimum amount of time is found to be costly.
The final section of the book, financial issues, delves more deeply into the relationship between tuition, financial aid, and PSE access and persistence, what the editors call “hard barriers” between students and PSE. The first of these chapters, written by Frenette, focuses on university attendance rates across income distribution levels. The commonly held opinion among economists that university attendance increases as family income increases because of financial factors is disputed by the author, who finds that most of the gap in attendance (between the top and bottom income quartiles) is owing to differences in factors like standardized test scores and high school grades, with only a fraction of the gap explained by self-reported financial constraints. The author is right to point out that family income is connected to academic performance, so finances are still implicit in this finding. Sociologists, again, have for decades discussed how the advantages of class affect academic achievement.
The second chapter in this section looks at the decision to enter university immediately after high school or CEGEP and the subsequent decision made at the end of each year to continue with one’s studies. The author, Johnson, finds little evidence that tuition plays an important role in that decision and finds no evidence that tuition levels or a change in tuition changes the probability that a student will leave university once they are in it. Johnson suggests that the debate about tuition levels should move away from questioning the impact of tuition on access and persistence.
The third chapter sets out to find a relationship between financial aid and persistence in PSE but, instead, makes a case for the difficulty in finding an accurate estimate of the relationship because of data issues. The central issue is that various factors are tangled together, such as paid work’s impact on eligibility for government-based financial aid and paid work’s effect on academic performance, which then has an impact on eligibility for merit-based funding. The author, Day, concludes by saying that there is no clear-cut picture of the relationship between financial aid and persistence in PSE, but this does not mean that we should conclude that financial aid is of no consequence to persistence.
The final financial issues chapter examines the arguments in favour of grants for qualifying students, pointing to a new dimension to consider: the lifestyle while one is in PSE. The authors, Carmichael and Finnie, argue the frugal lifestyle lived by most PSE students is not the same for all; students from high-income families receive financial transfers from their parents, while students from lower-income families do not. Grants can be used as a supplemental ‘transfer’ to help lower-income students get by during their time in PSE. The authors don’t suggest an optimal amount for grants, but they do say that grants (and not loans) are required in order to equalize the imbalance.
One of the strengths of this book is the foregrounding of the Canadian context and Canadian data. All too often the particular characteristics and nuances of the Canadian context are ignored, with many researchers looking to the volumes of research that have emerged from the United States. For those interested in PSE, this is a particularly grievous mistake because our post-secondary sectors are so different. Given the authors’ interest in stimulating evidence-based policy suggestions, their use of Canadian data and their discussions of the current state of Canadian knowledge are important.
Another of the book’s strengths is inherent in the editors’ focus: the desire to produce policy suggestions. All too often researchers reveal compelling findings but don’t make the link to policy changes or other avenues for reform. This book moves in the opposite direction, trying to link their findings back to the ‘real world.’ In some chapters, the authors do not make policy recommendations. This challenge is somewhat inherent in taking a broad approach to the question of access and persistence, because the multiple dimensions of the findings demand multiple ‘solutions’. We learn more through this broad approach, but it also raises more questions. Many of the chapters raise basic questions about some of the factors associated with various successes and difficulties in access and persistence; these questions remain unanswered by the authors. For example, why is being male associated with persistence in first program in college/CEGEP, as discussed in Chapter Nine? There are many “how?” and “why?” questions raised by some of the findings in the book.
Whether intentionally or not, the authors offer questions for other researchers to pursue; in most cases, these questions are arguably best answered using qualitative methodology. It’s also the case that some of these questions have begun to be answered in other disciplines; the inattention to other disciplines is notable for someone outside of economics. Reading the book from the sociology of education perspective, I was left believing that the findings from other disciplines could have provided additional depth to the discussion of educational issues and each chapter’s findings.
With their suggestions for future research and their emphasis on the Canadian case and Canadian data, this book will surely encourage others to continue to enhance our knowledge of the various dimensions of PSE access and persistence and, furthermore, help inform the kinds of Canadian policies necessary to reduce and eliminate the gaps in participation and completion.
Jayne Baker is a PhD Candidate at the University of Toronto in the Department of Sociology, currently writing her dissertation on the practices of elite, private, single-gender secondary schools.