Good Data Comes to Those Who Wait: What We Now Know About Early Interventions to Promote Access to PSE

The spring federal and provincial budgets were watched closely to see how governments of all political stripes would attempt to balance short-term fiscal restraint and longer-term investments in infrastructure and human capital. In this context, it is notable that a number of these budgets put forward measures to make student financial assistance programs more generous. Whatever one may think of other tax and spending policies, it is welcome news that the goal of balancing the books is not always being pursued at the expense of need-based programs that benefit postsecondary students.

While the changes to student aid may not have attracted the most media attention, they will certainly be welcomed by those who rely on grants and loans to help finance their postsecondary studies. Some specific examples include changes to the federal student loans program to eliminate the practice of clawing back income earned by students and to reduce the amount of the financial contribution expected from parents. Changes to provincial programs range from indexing aid levels to inflation and removing the penalty for students who own vehicles in Ontario to eliminating student loans and replacing them with grants in Newfoundland and Labrador. 

Taken together, these and other measures will increase the total amounts of assistance that many students receive, and improve the quality of aid by making more of it non-repayable. At the same time, it would be hard to characterize these changes as radical, since they keep the basic structure of student aid programs in place. In particular, they do little to tackle the more deeply rooted barriers to access that still keep too many students from low-income families from aspiring to postsecondary education in the first place.

The limitations of student loans and grants as a means of promoting access are well known. These programs kick in only once a student has decided to enroll and has been able to account for all of their actual costs and available resources. This works for students who are determined to continue their studies past high school and who are academically qualified to gain entry. Unfortunately, many students who assume PSE is out of reach never get that far. 

Better information for high school students about the true costs and benefits of postsecondary studies and the various forms of assistance available can help. Information, however, is another kind of resource that is more easily accessed by those who face the fewest obstacles: inevitably, those students most in need of this type of information are the least likely to obtain it. 

In short, student financial assistance programs are really more about what happens after a student decides to pursue postsecondary studies than about the steps that need to be taken in high school to make that decision more likely.

It is unrealistic to think that these programs are the right tool to encourage students in their early teens to reimagine their futures, aspire to careers that may at first seem out of reach, select all the right courses and surround themselves with the academic and other support systems they need in order to succeed. 

That is why, as well as making student aid programs more fair and more generous, it is still necessary to rethink the whole approach in order to find a way to connect with students at a younger age. In 2009, my colleagues and I proposed one possible element of such an approach: a simple mechanism to communicate regularly with low income families, long before their children reached the end of high school, about their eligibility for non-repayable aid should they choose to enroll in university of college. This would involve working through the existing infrastructure of the income tax system to establish a virtual account for children in low-income families where government grants could be deposited on an annual basis, starting years before high school, and accessible once the child enters post-secondary education. Along with their income tax return and statement of the balance in this virtual account, families could also receive information about different education pathways, their costs and other available forms of support. 

The key feature is that parents in lower income brackets, having been identified through the tax system, would be automatically enrolled: the funds in the account set aside for their children would be deposited and reported to them in their income tax return, without requiring them to take any further action. This automatic enrolment would greatly improve upon existing programs to help low-income families save for their children’s post-secondary education, such as the Canada Learning Bond, which require parents to take steps to learn about the program, confirm their eligibility and open a special account at a financial institution. 

The disadvantage of this more onerous approach is clear: ten years after the launch of the Canada Learning Bonds, less than a third of eligible low-income families are actually benefitting form the program. 

The only thing that has changed in the five years since that recommendation was issued is that the evidence in its favour has grown much stronger. This is the result of the findings published by the Social Demonstration and Research Corporation (SRDC), which has been tracking the effects of a similar pilot project on the behaviour of students in New Brunswick.  The project in question is known as “Future to Discover,” which was part of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation’s research program, a program that was wound down at the end of 2009. SRDC’s tracking of the impacts of Future to Discover on students as they become eligible for post-secondary education and eventually enter the labour-market is continuing thanks to the support of the New Brunswick government.

The Future to Discover project actually contained two elements. One was a series of career education workshops, focusing on preparing for and financing post-secondary education, run after school for students in Grades 10, 11 and 12. The other was an early promise of funding for post-secondary education, which entailed a deposit of funds in a virtual “learning account” at the end of Grades 10, 11 and 12 which students could access once they enrolled in college or university (the total funding promised was $8,000). Future to Discover was a large scale randomized trial, in which 4,400 participating students were assigned by lottery into one of four groups: a group offered the career education workshops; a group offered the learning accounts; a group offered both; and a control group offered neither of these new programs, but retaining access to the existing system.

Several years after the career education and financial incentive programs were offered to high school students, the results in terms of access and completion of post-secondary studies are starting to become available. As SRDC reports, “each program and the combination of the two significantly increased post-secondary enrolment among groups of students less likely to continue their studies beyond high school … [and] generated striking impacts on post-secondary graduation rates.”

Specifically, SRDC finds that the learning accounts boosted post-secondary enrolment for students from low-income families by 10 percentage points, from 39 percent (the figure for the control group) to 49 percent. Graduation rates so far are also 10 points higher among this group of students (22 percent as opposed to 12 percent for those in the control group—which represents close to a doubling of the number of graduates among this under-represented group); this figure will be adjusted once more time is allowed for students to complete longer programs, particularly those at the university level. The career education workshops also had a positive effect; for instance, 26 percent of students from low-income families who were in the group offered the workshops enrolled in university, compared with 18 percent for those in the control group.  

In view of the enormous benefits of a post-secondary education not only to the individuals involved over the course of their lives, but also to the province’s economic and social development, this ability to move the needle on what is often seen as an intractable problem is tremendously encouraging.

The Future to Discover project tested only two of many possible approaches. It is not a silver bullet, and, as the SRDC analysis shows, its components may work better in some contexts and for some groups of students that for others. What it does show, however, is that early interventions can work: that offering students from low-income families better information and clearer financial incentives in the years before they finish high school does serve to raise the proportion that goes on to enroll in and complete postsecondary education. This evidence should now drive policy, policy that goes beyond adjusting the eligibility rules for existing student loans and grants.

When I joined the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation in 2004, its first longitudinal studies were just being launched. It took a while to get used to the fact that I had joined a team that was managing research projects whose results would not be known until a decade later. If there is one thing that longitudinal studies require, besides a proper research budget, it is patience. But, as we all know, time flies. The Foundation’s programs wrapped up years ago, but the results of some of the most important studies it commissioned are now just becoming known. They should not be overlooked.

Andrew Parkin has devoted his career to advancing evidence-based policy making and building bridges between government, public interest and non-governmental organizations, the private sector and the academic community.

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