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A Comprehensive Access Strategy

Financial barriers have a way of taking over discussions about post-secondary access. Perhaps it is because they are tangible and the solutions are (at least logically) straightforward. Students can’t afford to go to university? Let’s make it more affordable. But as the government continues implementing revolutionary reforms to the Ontario Student Assistance Program, we must continue to prioritize the issue of access in this sector. This year’s access policy paper discusses students’ vision for a comprehensive provincial access strategy--one that prioritizes non-financial barriers to university.

The paper begins by taking a high-level look at access to university in Ontario. Initial discussions focus on the use of Strategic Mandate Agreements as mechanisms for making access a provincial priority. The centralization of key sectoral data and increased funding of early outreach programming also apply to the sector at the highest levels. The discussion then takes a stage-based approach to university access and considers various solutions prior to and during secondary school, as well as solutions for non-traditional students who do not enter university directly from high school.

It’s easy to get caught up in how policy looks on paper. A program--like academic and applied streaming--can be implemented with good intentions, but produce negative consequences. Nevertheless this is the area, between intention and consequence, where our policy attempts to operate. This is also where things get quite complicated.

Out of necessity, this paper looks at the period before students arrive at universities; that is, we discuss factors influencing prospective students’ ability to get through the doors of their institutions. And we stop there. While retention and persistence are certainly crucial for earning degrees, students must first succeed at earlier educational levels. It’s at these earlier educational levels where very real concerns about university access arise, especially for students from underrepresented groups.

While Strategic Mandate Agreement report backs are used to record the numerical representation of Indigenous students, first generation students, students with disabilities, and Francophone students, there are other groups that are either underrepresented at universities or, at least, under-served by Ontario’s education system. This includes (but is certainly not limited to) students of colour, crown wards, LGBTQ+ students, refugees, mature students, students with dependants, students from low-income backgrounds, students from remote communities, and students whose first language is not English or French.

It is often these students who face the greatest social and non-academic barriers to education. A recent HEQCO study (by Dooley, Payne, Steffler, and Wagner) found that individual academic performance was the greatest determinant  of whether or not students stay on the STEM pathway through secondary school and into university. The authors note this as a positive policy conclusion. Which it is of course, in that this tells us that we must focus efforts for increasing university access on ensuring all students have fair, equitable chances to prove themselves academically.

Unfortunately many social factors (negatively) influence some students’ performance. From a policy perspective, this points us towards cultural change: a very difficult thing for policy to influence. Nevertheless, a worthwhile pursuit.

The culture surrounding post-secondary education is an important factor that arises from social pressure and expectations from family, friends, and educators to attend (or not attend). That is to say teachers’, families’, and guardians’ expectations can heavily influence academic performance.

Examples of this can be found in the racial and income based disproportionality of applied and academic stream demographics and secondary school outcomes. We see many more students from low-income neighbourhoods in applied and locally developed essentials programs than students from high income neighbourhoods. We also see disproportionately more Indigenous, Black, Middle Eastern, mixed race, Latin American, and South East Asian students in applied streams. Lower streams show substantially higher dropout rates and less post-secondary participation. Perceived higher academic performance in high school also seems to encourage parents to save more money for post-secondary.

With all of this in mind, this policy attempts to discuss students’ concerns surrounding these social factors. If the government is to reach a 70 percent higher education attainment rate by 2020, it will have to find ways to increase the participation rate. Nurturing the culture of post-secondary education early and ensuring fair, equitable access for all students is their next big policy challenge.

To read about students’ values and recommendations for change on these matters, check out our Comprehensive Access Strategy policy paper here.