David Coletto Educated Solutions article

Republished from Educated Solutions: The Affordability Issue (Issue 8, November 2011)

By David Coletto, Ph.D CEO, Abacus Data Inc.

For the complete results of OUSA’s recent public opinion polling with Abacus Data, click here.

The recent provincial election campaign in Ontario was dominated by debates over taxes, the economy, and who was best to lead Ontario through what appears to be some uncertain economic times. We heard little about some of the other priorities Ontarians care about: health care and education.

In early September, OUSA and the College Student Alliance commissioned Abacus Data to conduct a public opinion survey of Ontarians over the age of 18 to gauge the public’s attitudes towards post-secondary education. An election is a great time to survey the public because it is the one time when it is most engaged and most likely to be thinking about policy issues. With an election underway and school back in session, it was an excellent time to find out where the public is when it comes to post-secondary education.

Here are some of the key findings from the survey.

Most Ontarians believed that post-secondary education was very important to the province’s quality of life and economic prosperity over the next 20 years.

There was little disagreement among the public when it came to higher education’s role in building a better province in the future. Over six in ten respondents (65%) said that post-secondary was very important to the quality of life and economic prosperity of Ontario over the next 20 years while another 26% believed post-secondary was somewhat important to achieving that outcome. This opinion held regardless of one’s gender, age, income, or education. The link between future prosperity and higher education is a consensus opinion.

When asked whether post-secondary education was more important or less important to the province’s future than either hydro rates or health care, only a small minority considered it to be less important. A full two-thirds of Ontarians (67%) believed that post-secondary education was either more important than or just as important as “hydro rates” to the province’s future prosperity while a majority (62%) believed PSE was either more important than or just as important as “the quality of the health care system” to Ontario’s future.

Thus, our poll indicated that public likely does not separate higher education from other priorities such as health care or hydro rates but sees it as an integral part of what will build a better province in the future.

Ontarians also recognize the impact of tuition fees on access, the rise of student debt loads, and the need to spend more higher education.

Respondents were shown a number of statements related to post-secondary education and asked whether they agreed or disagreed with them. Overall, a large majority of Ontarians believed that students in Ontario have to borrow too much money to pay for their education (74% agreed) and that the cost of tuition fees in Ontario prevents students who are qualified and motivated to go to post-secondary education from going (68% agreed).

Moreover, when asked whether they would be willing to pay more in taxes if they money was used to reduce tuition fees and improve student aid, 54% agreed while only 30% disagreed. Ontarians not only believe that more should be done to reduce barriers to higher education and student debt loads, but a majority are willing to pay more taxes to see it happen.

What is more noteworthy is the fact that these opinions are relatively consistent across socio-economic and regional subgroups. Although younger and lower income respondents are more likely to agree with the statements, support for reduced tuition fees was high even among those with higher household incomes.

Ontarians with children at home are worried about paying for post-secondary education.

The broad support for eliminating barriers to access, reducing student debt loads, and reducing tuition fees is not surprising when you consider that 73% of Ontarians with children under 18 at home say they are either very or somewhat worried about their ability to help pay for their children’s post-secondary education. Only 5% say they are not at all worried.

The angst is not isolated amongst low or middle income Ontarians. Even among those with children under 18 whose household was higher than $75,000 per year, a large majority told us that they were either very or somewhat worried. It seems that economic uncertainty plus the rising cost of education has caused most Ontario families to worry about how they will help pay for the cost of their children’s education.

Consensus on post-secondary education: it must be a priority.

The survey research conducted by OUSA and the CSA clearly demonstrates a consensus among Ontarians about the importance of post-secondary education, not only to students in the system now and those entering in the future, but to the future prosperity and quality of life of all Ontarians. Ontarians strongly agree that student debt loads are too high and that tuition fees prevent capable students from obtaining an advanced education. For those with children under 18, many worry about their ability to help their children pay for their education

Keeping this in mind, it is no surprise that a majority of Ontarians rate post-secondary education a top priority for government spending and that over five in ten respondents would be willing to pay more taxes if it meant that tuition fees would be reduced and student aid improved.

After a divisive election campaign that left no party with an all-out majority in the legislature, one thing that unites all Ontarians is their belief that Ontario’s future is linked to the affordability and effectiveness of its post-secondary education system.

Post-secondary education is a public priority and Ontarians want it to be a priority of their government.

Survey Methodology

The survey was conducted online with 1,002 respondents from September 9 to 12, 2011. Respondents were randomly selected from a representative panel of over 150,000 Canadians. The data was statistically weighted by age, gender, education, and past provincial vote. Although there is technically no margin of error for non-probability sample-based surveys, a random survey of 1,002 respondents would have a margin or error of ±3.1%, 19 times out of 20.

Abacus Data was the second most accurate pollster during the 2011 Ontario provincial election. For more information about Abacus Data or its track record, visit its website at
www.abacusdata.ca.

Dr. David Coletto is CEO of Abacus Data. He earned a PhD in Political Science from the University of Calgary and is currently the Pollster for Sun News Network. He is an instructor at the School of Journalism and Communications at Carleton University and a Visiting Scholar at Carleton University’s Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs. You can follow him on Twitter
@ColettoD.