New evidence post-secondary access programs improve the lives of disadvantaged youth

October 25, 2019

Ottawa, October 25, 2019 – Two reports by researchers at the Social Research and Demonstration Corporation (SRDC) released today present evidence on how well high-school graduates from lower-income families in Canada have fared in their ability to access post-secondary education over the past twenty years.

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) has released Postsecondary Participation and Household Income which documents policy efforts to improve post-secondary affordability in Canada: at the federal, provincial, and territorial levels. It then goes on to examine how the relationship between family income and post-secondary access has changed over the past two decades for nine provinces using Census and National Household Survey data. In only two provinces have the rates at which graduates from lower-income families enrol in post-secondary participation improved markedly. And only two experienced a narrowing of their participation gap relative to students from higher-income families. HEQCO’s release of SRDC’s report can be viewed here.

Jurisdictions need to embrace new approaches to increase post-secondary access.

The results in Postsecondary Participation and Household Income imply a need for jurisdictions to embrace new approaches to increase post-secondary access. Two such approaches are evaluated in another SRDC report released today. The Future to Discover: Seventh Year Post-secondary Impacts Report includes new results from a large-scale experiment tracking education and employment outcomes for ten years among high-school students from New Brunswick. The findings reveal how access to post-secondary education can be increased for groups of high-school students from lower-income families least likely to attend.

Two early high school access programs were tested separately and in combination:

  • Explore Your Horizons included 40 hours of career education workshops run in class but after school in Grades 10, 11, and 12; and
  • Learning Accounts guaranteed students grants as they were just starting their Grade 10 year, worth $8,000 conditional only on enrolment in post-secondary studies.

SRDC implemented a randomized controlled trial – the most rigorous method to evaluate program impact – recruiting 4,400 students in New Brunswick in 2004 and 2005 and randomly assigning them to four study groups. One was offered Explore Your Horizons, one Learning Accounts, one both, and one neither, aside from the existing supports to students in the province. SRDC tracked their education and employment for the following ten years. By comparing the outcomes of the group receiving existing supports only to the other study groups, the impacts of offering the programs on the next
ten years of participants’ lives could be estimated. The results include, for the first time in Canada, estimates of how much higher education benefits youth who are newly-motivated to participate due to post-secondary access programs.

For youth from first-generation families, the proportion earning college or university credentials increased from one in five to one in three [when offered Learning Accounts].

Groups of students who are traditionally less likely to continue their studies beyond high school who were offered Explore Your Horizons  alone, Learning Accounts  alone, and both together, all significantly increased their post-secondary enrolment. The career education workshops of Explore Your Horizons  induced more students to enrol in university programs, which are typically longer in length. By contrast, Learning Accounts  generated striking impacts on post-secondary graduation rates for lower-income families, raising them from 29 to 36 per cent. For those who were also from first-generation families, the proportion earning college or university credentials increased from one in five (20 per cent) to one in three (33 per cent). It seems the early promise of a $8,000 grant mainly changed community college enrolment rates, where programs are generally shorter in length.

“Learning Accounts represents a promising policy model that at face value could improve post-secondary access at negligible extra cost per student, by simply shifting earlier the time that high schoolers are made aware of their federal and local student grant entitlements. Our research shows that an early promise grant almost doubles post-secondary participation among groups of youth traditionally less likely to attend” said Reuben Ford, SRDC’s research director responsible for the project.

Future to Discover was initially funded by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, and has grown into one of the longest running social experiments in Canadian history. Today’s report was funded by the New Brunswick government, and its findings expand on SRDC’s earlier analysis published in December by HEQCO.

Higher education benefits youth who are newly-motivated to participate due to post-secondary access programs.

By linking to tax records, SRDC evaluated the access programs’ impacts on young people’s employment and earnings as they started out in the labour market. The study found the programs led to increased earned income. Based on earnings at age 23-24, participants from lower-income families offered Explore Your Horizons  on average saw an increase in annual income of $1,669 compared to the control group; those offered Learning Accounts  saw an increase of $660; and those offered both programs saw an increase of $1,062. These are lower-bound estimates for everyone in the study, regardless of whether they were motivated by the new programs to pursue additional education or not. When SRDC estimated the gain assuming the programs only increased earnings for those who were newly attending PSE as a result of the programs, it obtained upper-bound earnings estimates: an annual increase of $29,649 from Explore Your Horizons, $10,133 from Learning Accounts, and $17,994 from both programs combined.

Future to Discover has confirmed access interventions represent a powerful social and economic investment. Given that annual earnings differences that emerge at ages 23-24 will persist for decades, the study concluded that the potential to transform individuals’ lives and the broader economy from efforts to increase access to post-secondary education is substantial. Not only do individuals from traditionally disadvantaged groups benefit from these types of access programs, society as a whole can gain from an expansion in the skilled workforce. And a portion of earnings increases will return year after year to government in the form of higher tax revenues. “This is an important study for both individuals and governments, as it points to new ways to improve incomes for young people from lower-income families at the same time as increasing the proportion of future workers with much-needed skills and training” said David Gyarmati, SRDC’s Chief Executive Officer.

Read the October 2019 HEQCO publication Postsecondary Participation and Household Income.

Read the October 2019 SRDC publication Future to Discover Seventh Year Post-secondary Impacts Report.

Read the December 2018 HEQCO publication Education and Labour Market Impacts of the Future to Discover Project: Summary of Key Findings.