Multiple Barriers to Post-Secondary Education Access

I’m presently embroiled in helping to research a college program for one of my kids, and just had an interesting phone encounter with a “student advisor” at an Ontario college. By “interesting” I mean she was all ornery and patronizing, explaining to me with barely veiled impatience that the answers to the questions I was asking were all spelled out in the institution’s calendar.

Now, given that I have lots of edumacation and I “know the drill,” I wasn’t asking stupid questions (if I do say so myself), and I wasn’t about to be bullied by someone who clearly had no interest in helping me. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a pleasant or easy experience. I came away from it thinking hard about how this little incident crystallized the big point of my doctoral research, which is to show that getting into a post-secondary program can be daunting – especially if you are someone who doesn’t have already-educated family members to provide advice and help you through the process.

You see, I thought about how my step-daughter would have handled that call, or how some other young person, lacking experience with the system, might be left feeling discouraged and intimidated by the complex rules and dismissive attitudes that seem to thrive in giant bureaucracies like those found in colleges, universities, and governments. If I were uncertain or even scared to death to go to school in the first place, it wouldn’t take too many bitchy front-line people to send me running for the hills, I think. What’s worse, I’d probably think it was something I was doing wrong. I’d blame myself, not the system.

So my phone call with old GrumpyPants the Student Advisor was at least some validation for what I’m hoping to accomplish with my research. My doctoral dissertation focuses on how people choose their post-secondary programs. From an academic-y standpoint, I got interested in this because there is so much research showing that where you come from is where you end up: basically, if your parents completed post-secondary (especially university), you will too.

It’s also a policy issue: if you look at federal and provincial initiatives, there’s recognition that as a society, we may want talent, rather than social background or family income, to be what determines post-secondary access. So we end up with initiatives like the Canada Millenium Scholarship Foundation, which, until its recent untimely demise, provided scholarships and bursaries to students based on financial need [1]. Here’s a problem though: research suggests that tuition and funding programs for lower income students and families don’t have nearly the impact you’d think [2]. What’s more, even if you get more students out of the starting gate, you just end up with more of them not finishing the race. Don’t even get me started about non-completion rates in US colleges [3].

Clearly, it isn’t (just) money that prevents lower income families from sending their kids for post-secondary education, and in many cases kids themselves from completing their programs. So what’s the deal? What I’m hoping I’ll be able to show through my research is that the post-secondary system is difficult and intimidating to navigate, and that what I’ll call “cultural competence” here plays an enormous role in the confidence and skill with which a student or parent handles this navigation [4].

Until such time as policy at all levels – federal, provincial and institutional – begins to address the cultural barriers to post-secondary success through comprehensive career counselling (especially in our high schools), I expect we’ll continue to see the kind of inequality of access and completion that has characterized post-secondary learning to date. I can ask questions and rattle swords on behalf of my kids because I “get” the system. But for many young people, and even many adults who haven’t done any formal learning since high school, “the system” can be a source of uncertainty and confusion. It just ain’t all about tuition fees and student loans; a comprehensive policy approach to post-secondary access must recognize this.

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[1] The Canada Millenium Scholarship Foundation has also produced 10 years of some really super research, and frankly, it’s a shame that this won’t continue. Thanks Harper government! Yeesh.


[2] The limited impact of funding on post-secondary participation patterns was a finding of the Millenium Foundation’s research. Drawing on national data and related research on participation and attainment, Berger, Motte & Parkin (2009) conclude that barriers are multiple and complex, and that, on balance, “financial barriers proportionately play a lesser role than do youths’ family
background and academic performance” (p. 134). See The Price of Knowledge, 2009.


[3] College non-completion is an enormous problem in the United States, leading to a growing body of admin and academic work on “persistence.” Here are a couple of samples of this literature: Camara, W. (2003). College Persistence, Graduation, and Remediation. Braxton, M (2010). Catalysts and Constraints to College Student Persistence: Introduction to a Special Issue of the Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice 


[4] I think I’ve previously mentioned the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. A central idea in his work is that “capital” – that is stuff that we have to invest for returns on the future – takes many forms. “Cultural capital” is the kind of know-how I am referring to with this idea of “cultural competence.” It’s knowing how to act, what to say, and what questions to ask in certain settings in order to get what you want or need. “Social capital” is the “who-you-know” stuff that I think we are generally more familiar with through Robert Putnam’s work, and contemporary recognition that “networking” is a good thing.

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