Fiona Deller and Martin Hicks — Is postsecondary education the great equalizer?
In a paper we published earlier this year, we wrote that access to postsecondary education starts early in the educational pathway, and isn’t an equal race for everyone. We know that youth from low-income and first-generation backgrounds (those whose parents did not go to postsecondary) have a particularly difficult time getting in.
But what happens after graduation? Have we levelled the playing field? Is postsecondary education the great equalizer for graduates entering the labour market, regardless of their starting point in life? Thanks to Statistics Canada’s ground-breaking work linking data sets and making them available to researchers, we can begin answering these questions.
We can confirm that first-generation students still struggle to access postsecondary education. But now we can also show that those who do go and graduate do better in the labour market than first-generation students who don’t, and equally as well as non-first-generation graduates. For these students, postsecondary education levels the playing field.
We can look at the same dynamic by family income. Marc Frenette at Statistics Canada just published a paper, commissioned by HEQCO, which looks at exactly this question. Overall, the access trend is similar. Low-income students continue to struggle getting to postsecondary. The good news is that the gap is narrowing, and low-income students are going in proportionally larger numbers than before.
And once they graduate? Frenette’s analysis shows that graduates from low-income backgrounds definitely do better in the labour market than if they had not made it through postsecondary. However, contrary to first-generation graduates, they don’t quite close the gap in earnings with postsecondary graduates from high-income backgrounds.
For what it’s worth, the studies use different data sets: The family-income paper uses the Education and Labour Market Longitudinal Linkage Platform (ELMLP), and the first-generation paper uses the Longitudinal and International Study of Adults (LISA). However, we ran a similar income analysis with the LISA data and found the same trend, with a slightly lesser effect.
So, what does this tell us?
We are entering into a world of new data availability. The LISA and ELMLP data sets are vast, and we have only begun to mine their potential. Think what we could do with the addition of the Ontario Education Number (OEN). We have written about the power and possibility of this data elsewhere; the province needs to make the OEN available.
The new data confirms that postsecondary education is an important lever for enhanced labour market performance for those who are traditionally marginalized. It is interesting that while first-generation status and low-income family background are strongly correlated in the population, the two groups achieve divergent results in terms of post-graduation labour market equity. More work clearly needs to be done to understand why.
We also need more information on whether these effects are seen in sub-populations such as students with disabilities, immigrants, Indigenous students, racialized students or by gender. This will come.
We know the access gap opens early in the educational pathway. The problem is primarily one of getting to the front door of higher education, less so of reaping its benefits afterward. It’s time to question the role of higher education in facilitating access. With the provision of financial aid aside, postsecondary is late in the game to be trying to close the access gap. Perhaps the core role for the postsecondary sector is to provide a quality education with appropriate labour market skills for all students, and we should be looking at systemic change in the K-12 system, the health system and the social safety net to close the access gap.
Fiona Deller is HEQCO’s senior executive director of research and policy. Martin Hicks is HEQCO’s executive director of data and statistics.