Access Programs in Ontario: OPAIP and Pathways to Education

Access Programs in Ontario: OPAIP and Pathways to Education was written by Ken Chatoor, Rachel Courts, Jennifer Han, Victoria Barclay & Julia Colyar, Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Improving access to higher education depends on better access to high-quality data

To assist historically disadvantaged students access postsecondary education (PSE), leading organizations and researchers require better access to longitudinal student data — and better data infrastructure overall — according to a new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).

In Access Programs in Ontario: OPAIP and Pathways to Education, HEQCO presents findings from an evaluation of two Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) funded programs designed to address equity gaps in our education system: Pathways to Education (Pathways) and the Ontario Postsecondary Access and Inclusion Program (OPAIP).

Pathways is a national non-profit organization that works to break the cycle of poverty through education, supporting low-income secondary students toward graduation and PSE access through a combination of financial, academic, social and one-on-one supports. Pathways receives partial funding from MCU to support Ontario programs. OPAIP was introduced by the MCU in 2018 to address non-financial barriers to PSE education for underrepresented groups, for whom intervention and support may increase the likelihood of both access to and success in PSE. OPAIP is fully funded by MCU.

As part of its evaluation, HEQCO conducted a scan of similar access programs across North America; explored available data related to access and student outcomes in Ontario; reviewed OPAIP and Pathways annual reports; and surveyed and interviewed program participants, staff and leaders. The report describes how Pathways and OPAIP each play significant roles in improving access to PSE for historically underrepresented students through important interventions and different approaches.

However, the report also reveals three key gaps that limit, or act as barriers to, the potential impact of both OPAIP and Pathways. These barriers can be summarized as follows:

  • The PSE sector grapples with a lack of reliable, identity-based, demographic data at an administrative level, both provincially and institutionally. Available data are limited and inconsistent. Moreover, a lack of data pertaining to race, Indigenous identity, disability type, LGBTQ+ identity and immigration status makes it challenging for program staff to target students who may benefit the most from support. A lack of data also hampers the tracking of PSE outcomes and makes comprehensive program evaluation more difficult.
  • Delayed and unpredictable funding timelines hinder OPAIP and Pathways staffing and staff capacity, long-term planning, partnership building, outcome tracking, and overall program delivery.
  • OPAIP and Pathways require greater capacity to provide targeted programming for evolving needs, including for culturally responsive supports, partnerships with local communities, mental health resources and accessible technology.

In response, Access Programs in Ontario also offers a series of recommendations to MCU that will ensure Pathways and OPAIP continue to support students as they transition to PSE. These recommendations include:

  • Enable greater access to reliable data. MCU should mandate the collection and reporting of reliable, consistent demographic data to inform provincial understandings of access and equity. Government should continue discussions with partners to build a consistent approach for PSE institutions based on well-established models, including standards used by Statistics Canada or as outlined in the Ontario Data Standards for the Identification and Monitoring of Systemic Racism. Government should focus on opportunities to link demographic data to the Ontario Education Number (OEN) to enable tracking of educational outcomes. It should also ensure greater consistency in reporting through clearer demographic definitions, tracking protocols and reporting requirements for institutions receiving OPAIP funding.
  • Establish consistent funding timelines to strengthen program administration and delivery. MCU should ensure funding is distributed according to a predictable schedule to support staff retention and program delivery at both Pathways and OPAIP.
  • Facilitate the development of supports that are specific to community needs. MCU should outline goals and reporting requirements that encourage institutions to create supports that are responsive to the needs of underserved communities. Government should also explore opportunities to subsidize the costs of Internet access and provide technological devices to students in low-income communities.