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CAUT Bulletin Archives

October 2010

Inequity in Access for Disadvantaged Students

By Penni Stewart
Every qualified student, Canadians and their governments believe, should have access to post-secondary education. But is near universal access a realistic goal given current tuition policy in most Canadian provinces? Are some students being systematically ex­cluded? Data suggests students from lower income backgrounds are under represented in post-secondary education, especially in universities.

In 2006, 60.8 per cent of youth aged 18 to 24, whose parents reported incomes of $50,000 or less, had participated in post-secondary education, compared to 73.1 per cent of those with parental incomes exceeding $75,000 and 80.9 per cent whose parents reported more than $100,000 annually. Unsurprisingly, student enrolment in university or college is also related to parental levels of education.

In 2008–2009, average tuition fees in Canada ranged from a low of $2,167 in Quebec to a high of $5,932 in Nova Scotia. Tuition has risen steadily in the past two decades, and in some provinces has more than doubled.

For professional students, it’s another ball game entirely. Medical school tuition at McMaster University was $17,222 in 2008– 2009, while costs for University of Saskatche­wan dentistry students jumped to $32,000.

Spiraling costs have reignited a debate about tuition policy and the accessibility of post-secondary education. Some argue tuition fees should rise and loans and grants will ensure those in need have access. Advocates for this position point to what they argue are the “private benefits” of education, particularly future higher earnings. Also, they point to high levels of enrolment as evidence that complaints of financial distress are overblown.

On the other side, CAUT, the Canadian Federation of Students, and many others argue that students already pay far more than their fair share for education through fees and taxes.

While the extent to which higher fees create barriers to participation is debated, there is consensus that the lower participation rate of low income students is also related to racialization, immigration status, coming from a one-parent family, living in a rural area and being a first generation student. Aboriginal students face the challenge of financial barriers imposed by the lack of federal funding.

Underlying these phenomena is social class, an aspect of Canadian life which has been largely ignored in the research on accessibility. Academic preparedness and high school achievement are intimately linked to parental education and income — both aspects of social class. Perhaps because they are visible, academics and the media have focused on race and gender as everyday aspects of stratification, but rarely deal with class.

There’s been enough variance in tuition policies of the pro-vinces in recent years to measure the impact of higher tuition on enrolment. Analyzing data from the 1993–2004 Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics in the Ca­nadian Journal of Economics, Michael Coelli reported that “the univer­sity enrolment of youth (ages 16–20) from low-income backgrounds fell considerably as tuition fees were increased, while the enrolment of youth from middle- and high-income backgrounds responded much less significantly.”

In a nutshell, in provinces where fees increased, participation of students in low income families decreased, after accounting for the influences on enrolment of attri­butes such as parental education, language, distance from univer­sity, gender and visible minority status.

If tuition fees pose a barrier to enrolment for low income students, we might hope this would be ameliorated by tax credits like the Registered Education Savings Plan, or by the student loan system that targets needier students. But like other tax credits, the RESP is not needs based and is essentially a subsidy to middle and higher income families who have the ability to set aside savings.

Student assistance plans, on the other hand, continue to be important in encouraging access for low income students. Unfortunately, the capacity of these plans does not meet the level of student need. Currently, financial aid is made available to students through the Canada Student Loans Program and a mix of scholarships and bursaries provided by universities and colleges.

In 2008, the federal government introduced a student grants program under which students from low income families who qualify for a federal student loan can receive up to $250 per month of study. But the loan portion of assistance remains far in excess of the available grant. This has resulted in ballooning student debt — on average, graduating first degree students with debt owe $37,000.

Evidence of the negative effects of large debts is accumulating. Needing to borrow discourages initial enrolment in post-secondary education and incurring high levels of debt leads to longer time to graduation and increases the likelihood that a student will fail to graduate. Debt is also cited as the reason young doctors and lawyers don’t take lower paying public service jobs or go into family practice.

Post-secondary education must be available to every qualified student. Yet today, there is a real danger that many students will be discouraged from attending because of a lack of financial resources or a fear of onerous debt. A fully needs-based grants program would go a long way to fixing the problem.

The problem of rising tuition fees, however, will only be resolved with better public funding of the post-secondary system. The federal government must do more to meet this challenge. Without this, accessibility will be further eroded and our commitment to social equity and fairness compromised.