@ Issue Paper No. 8 An Overview of PSE Accessibility in Ontario

Executive Summary:

Efforts to evaluate postsecondary access programs hampered by lack of research data

Over 80 per cent of Ontario secondary school students enrol in some type of postsecondary institution by age 21, placing the province among world leaders in postsecondary participation. But gaps in access remain for some groups – most notably those with no parental postsecondary experience or who identify as Aboriginal persons. And despite government and institutional efforts to improve access for these groups, the lack of ongoing longitudinal data will make it difficult to track progress and evaluate their effects, according to the @Issue paper, An Overview of PSE Accessibility in Ontario, by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).

Project description

Since 2007 when it became operational, HEQCO has conducted extensive research on Ontario PSE accessibility, using national data sources and linking data from secondary institutions and the provincial university and college application services. HEQCO has also commissioned several external research studies on the topic.  This @Issue paper summarizes findings to date.

Building on the 2004 Rae Task Force, the government’s Reaching Higher plan for PSE identified a number of specific groups as warranting particular attention in PSE: low-income families, Aboriginals persons, Francophones, new Canadians, persons with disabilities, and first generation students – those whose parents have no PSE experience.


HEQCO research finds that some of these identified groups are not underrepresented. First- and second-generation immigrant youth (those born outside of Canada or have a parent born outside of Canada), for example, are significantly more likely than non-immigrants to enrol in PSE, particularly university.  Participation in PSE by Francophone youth is comparable to non-Francophones, with policy attention now focused on the availability of programs in French.

There is a fair bit of overlap in what influences under-represented groups to go (or not) to PSE. For example, income has a much smaller impact on PSE decisions than is often believed when combined   with other influences such as parental education or living in a rural area. 

The urban-rural gap in PSE participation may be a function of the additional costs that rural students face in attending college or university, as these institutions are generally located in urban centres. HEQCO research has shown that the underrepresentation of persons with disabilities is also due, in part, to additional costs for attending and completing PSE, as well as the greater uncertainties these students may encounter in the labour market after graduation.

But after accounting for overlap among the various influences, youth with no parental postsecondary experience or who identify as Aboriginal persons are substantially less likely to attend a postsecondary institution.

Policy implications

For these groups, say the authors, a different approach is required to increase participation rates, as money alone will not work. Policy initiatives must address such issues as providing accurate and easy-to-understand information on the costs and benefits of pursuing PSE and the financial and other support available, more assistance in understanding the complex array of PSE choices available and guidance on how to navigate application and registration processes. As other HEQCO research underscores, these initiatives need to be started well before high school and may mean involving extended families and even entire communities.
Reducing and eventually eliminating these PSE attainment gaps will increase participation and graduation rates for students from under-represented groups, say the authors.  Many initiatives are in place by government and individual institutions but monitoring and evaluation are hampered by the absence of longitudinal studies such as Statistics Canada’s Youth in Transition Study, which is in its final cycle with no plans for a follow up. Too, Statistics Canada’s mandatory long-form census has been the main source of data on PSE attainment.  But last year the federal government decided to make the long-form census voluntary, prompting widespread concerns that the data are likely to be biased and therefore less reliable.

As matters stand, it will not be possible to track how PSE participation patterns evolve over time, and thus to evaluate the effects of policies aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating PSE participation rate disparities.

This @Issue paper was written by Ken Norrie, vice president, research; and Huizi Zhao, research analyst; of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.