Access to Post-secondary Education: How Ontario Compares

Research Summary: 

Parental education key determinant of who goes to college or university 

Throughout Canada, having no family history of college or university is the most significant obstacle to postsecondary education (PSE). Family income is much less of a barrier. In fact, according to two new studies, a single year of parental education has a greater positive impact on the likelihood of a son or daughter attending PSE than does an extra $50,000 in parental income.

For Ontario students, coming from a low-income household is even less of an obstacle to college or university education than is the case anywhere else in Canada according to the studies, commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.

Project description

The first study, Access to Post-secondary Education: How Ontario Compares, used the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS-A) data to compare participation in PSE between Ontario and other Canadian regions, tracking the educational pathways of a sample of Canadians born in 1984 from the period of 1999 (when they were 15 and in high school) to 2006 (when they were 22 years old). In comparison to previous studies, the report explores not only the critical family income and parental education factors, but also the role of high school grades and reading scores from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) evaluation. While grades and test scores are strongly related to PSE participation throughout Canada (university in particular), the authors find that family income matters less in Ontario than in other jurisdictions and that grade and PISA score effects are among the strongest, indicating that Ontario may have a particularly ‘meritocratic’ system of access to PSE.

Also using data from YITS-A, Under-represented Groups in Postsecondary Education in Ontario: Evidence from the Youth in Transition Survey builds on previous research to analyze access to post-secondary education among a number of under-represented groups in Ontario and in other regions of Canada. This study differs from previous work in the full range of groups it considers (low family income, lower parental education, family type, disability status, etc.). As a result, the study gives a more preciseindication of which factors matter most to PSE access among under-represented groups – and which factors appear to matter simply because they are correlated with the other factors that really matter.


The PSE Access study found that while parental education was a strong influencer throughout Canada, family income was more strongly associated with PSE attendance in Atlantic Canada and Quebec than elsewhere. Further, the effects of family income were stronger nationally for females than for males.

The Under-represented Groups study also found that Aboriginal and disabled youth are strongly underrepresented in Ontario postsecondary institutions (particularly in university). In these results, say the study authors, Ontario does not compare favourably to other regions of Canada.

Among other findings, in almost all regions of Canada the children of immigrants are much more likely to go to a college or university (especially university). Being from a single parent household or being a Francophone outside of Quebec has little independent effect on access to PSE. And although females generally have significantly higher PSE attendance rates than males, females who are members of under-represented groups are more disadvantaged than males both within Ontario and across Canada.

Policy implications

The results of this and previous studies “present a fundamental challenge to our thinking about ‘barriers’ to PSE,” writes study co-author Ross Finnie. “It is perhaps not so much that those from low-income families are not able to go to PSE but that they also tend to be from families whose parents do not have a PSE credential. It is the transmission of values in favour of PSE, the preparation for PSE and other such factors associated with parental education – and not family income – that actually matter most.” He says there is growing consensus that early background and other cultural factors may be the most important influencers of all.

“The policy implications are potentially far-reaching,” he says, noting that in addition to addressing financial constraints (such as tuition levels, loans and grants), more attention could be devoted to “improving student motivation and performance at (or before) the high school level, providing better information to students and their families about the costs and benefits of education from an early age and carrying out other interventions targeted at the early-rooted and family-based factors that seem to be the most important determinants of access.”

There is no “one size fits all” solution, say the authors, who suggest that more research should be done using the YITS data and other data sources. They also say that other research methods, such as qualitative approaches, are required. “The specific issues regarding the challenges of PSE access facing under-represented groups are important, and becoming better informed about them is the first step in addressing them in an effective and efficient manner.”

The authors of these studies are Ross Finnie, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and the Education Policy Research Initiative, University of Ottawa; Stephen Childs and Andrew Wismer, both from the Education Policy Research Initiative, University of Ottawa.

From the source: Hear from study co-author Ross Finnie and Richard Wiggers, HEQCO research director, in a short video interview.