No government adviser can escape the worry that his recommendations will wind up gathering dust rather than guiding policy. Former Ontario premier Bob Rae, who presented his review of the province’s post- secondary education system in February, has more reason than most to be optimistic. Premier Dalton McGuinty and Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Mary Anne Chambers quickly signalled that the Rae report will start to be reflected in policy as early as the spring budget. And it was.
On May 11, the government of Ontario announced sig- nificant new spending to improve access and quality in post-secondary education, construct better facilities, and increase institutional accountability. This included signifi- cant increases to the Ontario Student Assistance Program budget. Among the measures announced were new low- income access bursaries for first- and second-year students, which will ensure the lowest income Ontarians will have a significant portion of their first two years of tuition covered by non-repayable assistance (the bursary for first-year stu- dents will be funded in partnership with the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation).
Canadians looking to improve access to college and university education should do more than congratulate Ontario. They should urge all provincial governments, and Ottawa as well, to consider the change of direction Rae urged. In particular, two aspects of the report merit close attention from policy-makers across Canada: the need to improve student financial assistance and the importance of reaching out at an early age to students from less privileged backgrounds.
The headline media coverage of the Rae Report inevitably focused on the $2.1 billion price tag he handed the provincial government. But the virtue of the report’s recommendations is that, at least in the case of student financial assistance, the call for more dollars was accompa- nied by a call for an important change in the way they are allocated. Currently, loans and grants in Canada are deliv- ered on the basis of students’ assessed financial need, which is determined by subtracting students’ recognized resources from their education-related costs. Not only are ”œhigh need” students eligible for larger student loans, but they also are the most likely to receive grants that do not have to be repaid, since student grants in Canada tend to be awarded to those students who borrow the most to study.
While this seems rational, it does not necessarily favour students from low-income families, for two rea- sons. First, students from such fami- lies are likely to try to keep their costs down by living at their parents’ homes, working while studying, enrolling in less costly programs and choosing to study at college rather than university. This kind of behav- iour generally causes low-income students to have less recognized costs and, therefore, lower levels of assessed need, despite the fact that their families have access to fewer financial resources. Students from middle- or higher-income back- grounds, conversely, are more likely to choose to move away from home, forgo work to focus on their studies, enrol in high-cost programs (includ- ing medicine, dentistry or law, all of which generally lead to well-paying jobs) and study at university rather than college. All these choices increase their costs, making them eligi- ble for more government assistance in the form of loans and non-repayable grants.
The second reason is that all students, regardless of family background, are declared to be independent of their parents once they reach a given age (generally around 22) or take two years off school to work or travel. Independent students are assumed to receive no parental support, regardless of how well-off their parents may be. This means that students who initially would have received no government financial assistance because their par- ents’ income was too high suddenly become eligible for loans and grants once they cross the magic administra- tive threshold from ”œdependent” to ”œindependent” status. Once again, the result is that student aid dollars, and especially grants, flow away from low- income students toward those from higher-income backgrounds.
For these reasons, the current need-based system has not sufficient- ly improved access to post-secondary education for students from low- income families. The reason this matters, of course, is that participation in post-secondary education is unequal across income groups. Youth from the lowest income quartile are half as likely to attend university as youth from the highest income quartile (although at the college level, stu- dents from all income backgrounds are equally represented).
Rae proposes to shake up the sys- tem by distributing non- repayable grants to students on the basis of their family income, not their level of assessed need. Under his pro- posal, the total amount of aid for which a student is eligible would be determined in the same way as before. The new wrinkle is that stu- dents from low-income backgrounds would receive a sizeable portion of this aid in the form of non-repayable grants, as opposed to student loans. In fact, Rae proposes that low-income students be eligible for grants of up to $6,000 per year to cover tuition. Students who do not qualify for grants would continue to be able to borrow to cover their costs. He calls on the federal government to reshape its own student loan program in the same way, providing grants to low- income students and loans to all other students. Such a shift in student aid policy would move us closer to the system in place in the United States. There, the lowest-income post- secondary students are eligible for a Pell Grant, which essentially provides them with the support their parents cannot afford to give them.
The creation of an upfront, income-tested grant of this kind would certainly reduce the financial barrier to participation in college or university, by making it less costly. But an added virtue is that it would provide a clear promise to youth from low-income families that when they do make it to college or univer- sity, their tuition costs would be covered. This type of transparency, in place of the current need-assessment system that keeps stu- dents guessing as to what aid they will be awarded until after they’ve begun their semester, would send the important message that a realistic opportunity for these students to study does exist.
Another interesting twist is Rae’s argument that institu- tions that charge more than $6,000 per year in tuition and mandatory fees should be required to pay these addition- al amounts for low-income stu- dents. For example, if a student entering a high-fee program received a provincial low- income grant of $6,000, the student’s institution would be expect- ed to cover fees exceeding $6,000, thereby effectively eliminating tuition fees for low-income Ontarians. In this way, Ontario’s post-secondary institu- tions would have to become much more engaged in delivering student financial assistance, much as their American counterparts already are. This approach makes sense: since institutions are given some leeway to choose the fees that they charge, they should also be made partly responsi- ble for lowering the financial barrier to participation by those from less- well-off families.
Rae also tackles the other dimen- sion of the problem, noted above, by recommending changing the defini- tion of ”œdependent” and ”œindepend- ent” students. Under his proposed system, single students under 25 pur- suing their first degree or diploma would be deemed to be dependent on family income. This change would allow for a more realistic assessment of who is and who is not in a low-income situation, and ensure that the new grant dollars would have the desired impact by being directed to the stu- dents who need them most. Dependent students whose parents do not make the expected contribution to their edcation should be entitled to an appeals process to ensure that they have access to sufficient student assis- tance to make ends meet.
Furthermore, Rae suggests increases to the provincial student loan limits, so that middle-income students are able to borrow the funds they need without turning to banks or working too many hours. He also argues in favour of reducing the stu- dent aid system’s expected parental contribution amounts, to enable more middle-income families to qual- ify for assistance. Other proposals include one to create an unsubsidized loan program for parents to finance their expected contributions, and another, by the Ontario government following the federal government’s lead, to match low-income parents’ contributions to RESPs to stimulate saving for higher education.
Only once this collection of reforms to student financial assis- tance is made, according to Rae, should the provincial government lift the tuition freeze currently in place. The fact that Rae has chosen to recommend providing more and better directed student aid, while allowing both tuition and student borrowing maximums to rise, has led to criticism that the result will be simply a continuation of the trend that has seen tuition and student debt rise signifi- cantly over the past 20 years. Many of the critics, however, have failed to realize the significance of the changes he is propos- ing. Providing effectively free tuition and requiring lower borrowing for low- income students could serve to increase university access for precisely those individ- uals currently less likely to enrol, something that tuition freezes have not succeeded in doing.
If there is a problem with Rae’s proposal, it is that his definition of what constitutes ”œlow income” is too restrictive. In order to be eligible for the full $6,000 grant from the province, a student’s family income would have to be below $22,615 – a level below the poverty line. Families with incomes between $22,615 and $35,000 would receive a partial grant, and those who earn more than $35,000 would receive no grant assis- tance and would have to borrow more to pay higher fees once tuition rises. This constitutes an argument for going beyond the level of investment Rae calls for in order to widen eligi- bility for the low-income grants.
The reforms to student financial assistance are only one plank in Rae’s strategy to widen access. The report also recognizes that the barriers preventing some students from going to university or college ”” particularly students from less privileged back- grounds ”” are not only financial in nature. Other barriers come into play years before students even think about affordability, let alone graduate from high school. The decision to pursue post-secondary studies is shaped at an early age by parental expectations, aca- demic preparedness and encourage- ment, and the receipt of good information about career choices and the actual costs and benefits of a uni- versity or college degree. If students from high-income families are more likely to participate in higher educa- tion, it is not only because they can more easily pay the tuition bill. It is also because throughout their lives they have benefited from support for the idea of post-secondary study and from access to accurate information about options after high school.
To help level the playing field, Rae proposes a series of measures that would see colleges and universi- ties become more actively involved in encouraging students in early grades to consider and prepare for post-secondary education. For exam- ple, Rae recommends that colleges reach out directly to those high school students currently less likely to go on to the post-secondary level, providing them with better informa- tion about career options and college education. This would be supple- mented by a ”œfirst generation” strat- egy directed specifically at students who could be the first in their family to participate in post-secondary edu- cation. Such a strategy would involve an aggressive early outreach to help stimulate interest in as well as plan- ning and saving for post-secondary education; tutoring at the elemen- tary and high school levels; and additional support to these students once they are enrolled in a post-sec- ondary institution. More generally, he talks about colleges leading the formation of ”œK-16 councils” that would develop strategies to improve the progress of children through each level of study, including the final step into college or university.
Taken together, these measures form a less complete package than the changes Rae proposes to the sys- tem of loans and grants, and carry a more modest price tag (the ”œfirst generation” strategy is costed at only $5 million). Rae certainly could have gone further, by proposing spe- cific ways for the two education ministries ”” the one looking after kindergarten to grade 12, and the one overseeing training, colleges and universities ”” to col- laborate on preparing young children for life after high school gradua- tion. That said, Rae should be commended for at least acknowledging that, until we focus on how children gain the necessary social capital needed to place them on a pathway to college or uni- versity, too many of those from disadvantaged back- grounds will be left behind, regardless of tuition levels and the availability of loans and grants.
For these reasons, the report should be required reading outside Ontario as well as within. Rae has read the research on the factors affecting access (including research conducted by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation) and tried to show how the lessons learned can be implemented in prac- tice. Increasing student aid dollars, better targeting of aid to those who need it most and simplifying the sys- tem of delivering assistance are important steps toward improving post-secondary education in Ontario. Paying attention to all the factors that ultimately influence the deci- sion to go on to post-secondary stud- ies will help those who wouldn’t otherwise make it to the college or university classroom. The report has done a service to all Canadians who are concerned with improving access to post-secondary education.