Fiona Deller — A better way to help students who need it most

Fiona Deller is HEQCO’s senior executive director of research and policy.

Ontario’s approach to increasing equity of access to postsecondary education (PSE) follows a certain structured if faulty logic: Identify students who are not going to college, university or into apprenticeships, and then create supports to help them access PSE and succeed once there. Sounds good, right? Sounds logical?

Except there are (at least) two big problems with this approach. First, we don’t really know if students from the underrepresented groups that we have identified — Indigenous students, students with disabilities, first-generation students and low-income students — are going or not because we don’t track them from the K-12 sector to postsecondary. We have a couple of signposts: We have some old provincial data (mostly from the Youth in Transition Survey, which ended in 2009) and bits of current data from colleges and universities (mostly from institutional surveys and application data where students can voluntarily self-identify) that indicate that students from certain backgrounds are still underrepresented. And we have some educated guesses and gut feelings.

But because we don’t track students, we don’t know if there has been an increase in their PSE participation rates over time, or if changes in policies, programs and institutional strategies have been effective. We don’t know where or why students from different backgrounds are struggling, or why they don’t show up in PSE. We also can’t say anything about the complexity of the barriers students face. Is there a participation difference between Indigenous students from rural and remote communities and urban Indigenous students? Do students with disabilities from middle- to high-income backgrounds attend PSE in larger numbers than their low-income peers?

What’s more, these demographic groups are not only reductive, they are immutable. Recent evidence suggests that students in the GTA who are not continuing to PSE seem to be those from certain racialized backgrounds and LGBTQ students. Other studies indicate that low-income students are going to PSE in larger numbers than previously, even before the OSAP reforms were introduced.

Then there’s the myriad student support programs available. Ontario colleges, universities, governments, school boards and community groups spend billions of dollars a year on programs for students from the four groups identified above. Student assistance (partly, but not entirely, for low-income students) is obviously a big-ticket item. But there are also centres for students with disabilities and funding programs for both first-generation and Indigenous students. But if we don’t track students who use them, how will we know if they work?

This is entirely an input model. Put money into a service or support and imagine the job is done. This is not only bad financial planning, it also does a disservice to the students we are trying to serve. What if the students who need support are not using these services? What if the services we are providing are not what they need? What if they simply don’t work?

Are accommodation centres for students with disabilities really the best way to support students with a wide range of mental-health, physical and learning disabilities? We don’t know. Is the current strategy increasing the participation and success of Indigenous students? No idea. Do first-generation students continue to struggle when they get into PSE? Your guess is as good as mine.

So how do we support students when we don’t know that much about them, or how they change over time, or how they respond to supports in the system? We need to do two things. We need a data infrastructure in Ontario that allows us to learn far more about who our students are, where they are struggling in their educational pathway and what is helping them succeed. And we need to build evaluation and assessment processes into every student support. How else will we know if they are actually working?

And isn’t that the point of an access strategy, after all? To know enough about the students in the system so that we can find responsive and effective ways of supporting those who need it most?

Fiona Deller is HEQCO’s senior executive director of research and policy.

One response to “Fiona Deller — A better way to help students who need it most”

  1. This isn’t just a data problem. There’s a great report (Bell and Bezanson, 2006) discussing the poverty of career planning and guidance counselling at the secondary education level. A central point is that NEETs, once lost from the system, are difficult to track, and very difficult to re-engage. So a lot of the issues you identify are in part downstream problems given lack of appropriate interventions in high schools.

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