In last Thursday’s budget, the Ontario government announced significant changes to the way student financial aid will be packaged to encourage greater participation of students from low income families. These changes come after years of research from HEQCO, and other organizations, about the inhibitory effects of a high tuition sticker price and loan aversion on the willingness of students from low family incomes to consider postsecondary education. This research recommended the kinds of changes the government has instituted – simplification of the financial aid system, consolidating the various loan and grant programs, more front-end loading of the financial aid, elimination of tax credits, and a move, in general, to a net tuition way of thinking about the cost of higher education. We applaud the government’s reforms announced in the budget.
We hope that the same spirit of evidence-based decision-making is brought to bear to solve some of the other significant challenges currently being faced by the Ontario postsecondary system. We identify three of them here.
First, there is considerable debate about the quality of the educational experience for Ontario college and university students, particularly about the degree to which this education prepares them adequately with the knowledge, skills and competencies necessary to get a good job and succeed in life. This controversy will not be solved by trading anecdotes or stories. Rather, we have the opportunity to conduct research and collect evidence that will demonstrate the skills and competencies, especially those most relevant to lifelong learning and the concerns of employers, that students acquire in their postsecondary programs. HEQCO is conducting two research projects in Fall 2016 that will collect this evidence, thereby informing and shaping the debates about any skills gap in Ontario college and university graduates.
Second, a considerable body of analysis reveals that the funding model now used in Ontario is no longer appropriate. The current system funding model is unsustainable and universities and colleges in Ontario are experiencing financial difficulties. It is acknowledged that we need a new funding formula if the Ontario postsecondary system and its institutions are to remain financially viable. The good news is that it is not only Ontario that is experiencing this challenge to its public higher education system. We have evidence and research on new funding models from other jurisdictions that should inform the design of a more effective funding model for Ontario. To have a sensible discussion, we will need to be sure that we thoroughly understand the current state of the Ontario system and, as Sue Herbert recommended in her recent analysis of possible funding models, we simply need better data about the Ontario system to set the foundation for this discussion.
Finally, while we are talking about evidence, let’s also acknowledge that the research demonstrates that greater financial aid alone will not solve the problem of increasing the participation of low-income and other under-represented groups in postsecondary education to the degree we would like. The financial aid reforms announced by the government are most welcome but they may be insufficient to redress the lower participation rates of students from low-income families. So, let’s be sure to evaluate the impact of these changes and work on those other socio-cultural factors that contribute to a lower probability of attending postsecondary.
One of the enduring values of HEQCO is that research and evidence inform and shape our policy advice and recommendations. It is encouraging, therefore, to see that research and evidence informed the financial aid changes recently announced. Let’s keep it up.
Fiona Deller, Executive Director, Policy and Partnerships
Martin Hicks, Executive Director, Data and Statistics
Harvey P. Weingarten, President and CEO