Ontarians with a university or college credential earn more, on average, than those without, and they tend to lead longer, healthier lives. This is why, over the years, Ontario has implemented policies aimed at increasing educational attainment, and part of the reason why the province’s postsecondary attainment rate is among the highest in the world.
It’s a good news story, but unfortunately not for everyone. Over 30% of Ontarians between the ages of 25 and 34 do not have a postsecondary credential.
Recently teachers, students, administrators and researchers from all levels of the education system came together to discuss why that is. What roadblocks prevent some students from planning for or accessing university or college, and what can we do to remove those roadblocks?
Along with our wonderful partners at People For Education, we organized an event to better understand the hurdles faced by students who are typically underrepresented in colleges and universities — like students from low-income families, racial minorities, students with disabilities and those whose parents did not attend postsecondary.
Many participants pointed to a fateful choice that students make as early as Grade 8: Should they take academic or applied courses in high school? We heard from participants that while some students are advised to enrol in applied courses because the material is more “hands on,” those students are choosing a path where expectations are lower, and where they will be less likely to graduate from high school and qualify for a postsecondary program.
We heard from researchers and educators alike that racialized students, especially Black males, and students from lower-income families are more likely to take applied courses. They told us that even though applied courses are designed to be a path to college, only a minority of students taking applied courses are accepted into Ontario colleges.
Participants at the event grappled with how our education system could better support all students to reach their educational goals. Some schools are removing the option to enrol in applied courses. With additional support from government or non-profit programs, some schools across the province are piloting initiatives where students who might have selected the applied version of English, Math or Geography, for example, are taking the academic version. With the support of academic tutors, or the benefit of smaller class sizes, those students are succeeding — scoring better on provincial assessments, getting better grades and graduating in higher numbers. The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, has begun a shift toward having more students take the academic path, creating more opportunities for postsecondary attainment down the road.
A panel of students inspired us to think about how our expectations and biases can affect student pathways. They encouraged educators and policy-makers to set high expectations and offer the right supports so that all students can master the content they need to graduate and qualify for higher education. The panel, which included representatives from the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, Ontario Student Trustees’ Association, the Students Commission of Canada and the College Student Alliance, told us that when we acknowledge racial inequalities or privilege tied to these expectations, we can change classroom dynamics and empower students who might have otherwise felt vulnerable or unseen.
Through events such as this, we at HEQCO have the privilege of starting conversations that engage people across the education system in the interest of better serving students. We will continue to explore the roadblocks on the path to higher education and how they can be removed, with valued partners like People for Education. We are grateful to the many practitioners and experts who have joined with us to develop a better understanding of these issues.
David Trick is interim president and CEO of HEQCO; Jackie Pichette is director of Policy, Research and Partnerships.