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Parental education and postsecondary attainment: Does the apple fall far from the tree?

TitleParental education and postsecondary attainment: Does the apple fall far from the tree?
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsChatoor, K., MacKay E., and Hudak L.
InstitutionHigher Education QualityCouncil of Ontario (HEQCO)
CityToronto, ON

Research conducted over the past two decades has revealed that parental education is an important determinant of PSE attainment. Students who come from a family where neither parent completed PSE are far less likely to pursue PSE themselves. As a result, the government of Ontario put in place policies that dramatically increased overall enrolment at universities and colleges. It also expanded financial assistance, capped tuition fees and provided targeted funding to institutions to support underrepresented students, including those whose parents did not complete PSE (known as first-generation students). Using newly available data, we assessed whether the gap in PSE attainment between first-generation students and their counterparts whose parents attained a postsecondary credential has changed, and whether parental education remains a significant determinant of PSE attainment. We also examined whether first-generation students who do obtain a postsecondary education reap the benefits of their credentials once in the labour market, and what effect, if any, their parents' educational background has on their labour market outcomes. Our findings reveal that a notable gap still exists in the PSE completion rate between first-generation students and their counterparts. Even among younger cohorts, a significant gap - more than 20 percentage points - exists and is essentially the same as that among older age cohorts. The situation appears to be particularly worrisome for young men. Our analysis indicates that parental education carries more weight in determining postsecondary attainment than other factors including family income. Parental education is also an important determinant of educational pathways leading up to postsecondary. First-generation youth are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school as their non-first-generation counterparts. However, those first-generation students who do make it to postsecondary are more likely to complete a program than their non-first-generation peers, indicating that retention at the postsecondary level is not a significant concern - getting in the door is. And once in the labour market, they earn similar incomes and are just as likely to have jobs with pensions, bonuses, managerial status and job permanence. This illustrates the important role that education plays in closing the opportunity gap for first-generation students, and underscores the need for policy-makers to focus more intently on ensuring that all Ontarians have an equal opportunity to access and succeed in Ontario's postsecondary system. Our findings indicate that while the province's policies have resulted in overall enrolment growth,they have done little to close the PSE attainment gap between first-generation students and their peers, despite a generous financial aid system and the provision of targeted funding for institutions to recruit and support these students. We believe a new approach is needed to better serve first-generation students. Our analysis suggests that a first step to achieving equity of access would be to get underrepresented students to complete high school. Once in the PSE system, they fare well. We believe that government resources would be better spent and far more effective if targeted to supporting prospective first-generation students in the K-12 sector, and to influencing their educational aspirations and decisions made long before they arrive at the postsecondary doorstep.

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