A stonemason, a student, a superintendent, a dean, a pre-school director, a faculty member, a not-for-profit executive director, and a data scientist walk into a hotel.  They’ve come together to  share their ideas about access to education at “Rethinking Access: When Non-Traditional is the New Normal” a conference put on by HEQCO (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario).  Most sessions were set up as panels surrounding a given topic about access – each panel was ripe with ideas and well-articulated challenges. Given the breadth and depth of issues around access, each panel could really only scratch the surface of the research and on-the-ground work being done.  Even so, I gained an appreciation for the systemic issues around access to education and some of the creative solutions for improving access from a variety of perspectives.

My big questions

I took the early train from London and arrived at the Delta Chelsea with my shirt on inside out and a lot of big questions: Who is accessing post-secondary education, and who is not? What are the barriers to accessing post-secondary education? What can and is being done about differences in educational access?

Access & barriers to a level playing field

In theory, education has the potential to provide opportunities to people from any and every background, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation.

In practice, all Canadians do not have equal access to education, and, as the title of the conference suggests, non-traditional students are the new normal.

An obvious barrier to obtaining post-secondary qualifications is money – and that was certainly addressed at the conference. But, it’s also more than that – entire segments of the population are less often encouraged, expected, and inspired to obtain a post-secondary qualification.  There’s a systematic problem of equity in education that’s linked to, but not solely explained by, money.

Why access matters? Post-secondary education pays off

Marc Frenette from Statistics Canada spoke at the conference – he said that despite the often mentioned Barista-with-a-PhD narrative, and despite the 2008 recession, earnings over the course of 20 years for college and bachelor’s degree still pay off on the order of $700 000.  But, we know that educational access and attainment is not the same for all segments of the population.

From a single story to national data, what does access look like?

Take speaker Gabrielle Scrimshaw, a member of Hatchet Lake First Nation, who is currently completing grad degrees at Harvard and Stanford. By her own admission, statistically, she shouldn’t be where she is now.

Gabrielle Scrimshaw’s story says so much about the many factors that can affect access to post-secondary education.  I won’t spoil her incredible story of uncertainty, persistence, and courage, except to share a single but potent reminder of my privilege.

Gabrielle applied to and was accepted at exactly one school for undergrad.  How did she choose which school to apply to?

She chose the University of Saskatchewan because it waived the application fee.

This one small piece of her story is not the only barrier she faced, it’s one of many.  If application fees prohibit students from even finding out if they would get in, how can education serve as a provider of opportunities for all?  By her early twenties, Gabrielle co-founded the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada, a global thought leader in indigenous leadership, and was named “One of 3 Young Aboriginal Canadians to Watch”.  The ripple effects from Gabrielle Scrimshaw’s professional activities are already apparent and she’s not yet 30. Imagine if she hadn’t persisted in the face of one more barrier.  Who else has experienced similar barriers and was prevented from attending post-secondary school?

Who is under-represented in post-secondary education in Canada?

I don’t have the whole story on who is represented in post-secondary education in Canada, but I can provide some brief context for Gabrielle Scrimshaw’s story.   According to StatsCan, 65% of Non-Aboriginal Canadians compared to 48% of Aboriginal Canadians (age 25-64) have a post-secondary qualification.

Income also has a significant affect on who attends post-secondary in Canada, with 50% of 19 year olds in the top income quartile (the top 25% household income) attending university compared to 31% in the bottom income quartile (bottom 25% household income) (from Marc Frenette, StatsCanada).

Marc Frenette explains that after attending university, differences in employment rates and pay have more to do with chosen field of study than income.

More than money: “The footsteps before me”

One recurring theme I took from two days at Rethinking Access is that under-represented segments of the population are not as encouraged, expected and supported towards post-secondary education in general, or in some cases, towards specific fields.  Again and again, speakers shared that kids need to see themselves as fitting and belonging somewhere.

According to Eliza Byard of GLSEN (USA), if LGBT students have just one LGBT role model in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Mathematics), they are significantly more likely to go into STEM fields themselves. Toni Schrader, a Social Psychologist from UBC said that the media plays a strong role on what fields young students consider, and summed up the issue by reminding the audience that students ask themselves “Is this a place where I’ll fit?”.

Gabrielle Scrimshaw grew up with an abstract, intangible understanding of post-secondary education. She had heard of people going to university or college, l but didn’t know anyone in her community who had done so firsthand.  It took a long conversation with a visitor to her school to consider university.  Even if you make your own path, she said, it’s easier to start by following in footsteps of those who have gone before you.

Some of us did walk in a well-worn path to higher education.  Two of my grandparents, my parents, and my brothers attended university before me, and the idea of getting qualifications after high school was completely normalized in my family. But for those who would be forging a new path in their family or even in their community, how do you improve their chances for success? How do you help someone make fresh footprints in the snow?

Speakers from not-for-profits and secondary schools have been working hard to help students find their way to further education after high school. Brian O’Leary from Seven Oaks School Division in Winnipeg noted the hypocrisy of saying that everyone can access education, to then function on an exclusionary approach.  We tell students “Sure you can attend, but it’s all on you – prove to me that you can go”.  In some schools in the Seven Oaks School Division, all students have an advisor who provides mentorship and guidance.  He spoke poignantly about fairytale stories of students finding mentorship:  “A student shouldn’t have to make the varsity basketball team to find an adult who cares for him”.  Haven’t we all seen that movie?  DSBN Academy in the Niagara region caters to first-generation post-secondary students (that is, they will be the first in their family to attend post-secondary school).  According to the principal of DSBN Academy, Lisa Nazar, nothing is left to chance.  In addition to their innovative approach to academics, students work on applications for OSAP and schools together. The result? 96% of the graduating students this year have an offer to college or university (and will be the first in their family to go!).

Dedication towards progress

Again and again, I heard: “We’re facing challenges and making progress”. It was inspiring to find this impassioned focus on access and equity among players from so many different parts of the educational (and other support) systems. I also appreciated the mix of attendees – setting up panels around issues meant that someone researching access to education is answering questions alongside someone who runs programs designed to improve access for students.  I left assured that access will continue to improve, and that we’ll have data to show it’s improving. For my part, I have the task of determining how to turn these reflections into positive action in my education and educational developer work.