A study of university graduate rates in Quebec suggests that while needs-based grants improve university attendance, they don’t help university graduation numbers. In other words, Quebec’s additional needs-based grants did allow more lower-income students to go to university, but that increase did not mean that more of those students actually graduated.
This study raises at least two questions in my mind. First, if a student goes to university and does not graduate, has that student necessarily wasted the time and money spent? The study’s author, Mathieu Chemin, seems to think so, pointing out that the labour market rewards graduation, not attendance. But labour markets are not the only measure of the value of education. I would like to see data regarding how many students who attended university without graduating still view their time there as rewarding and valuable. A half-eaten meal is still nourishing; it may be all you need. Might there not be many who attend university for, say, two years, and then decide to move on to other things, but do so with a wider range of knowledge, a better set of critical skills, and a fuller sense of the world’s possibilities? I have known more than one student who fits this description perfectly.
But even if many students do end up wasting their time pursuing a degree they don’t finish, another question arises: Why don’t more of those low-income students end up graduating? The possible answers that suggest themselves to me relate to preparedness. For one thing, low-income students may live in areas with inadequate educational resources. If their schools, libraries, and museums are inferior (or absent), poorer students may not be as well-prepared for university study. Similarly, if parents are struggling to make ends meet and working long hours at exhausting jobs, they may be unable to take as active an interest in their kids’ learning (directly or by hiring tutors, say) as richer parents. Still further, low-income parents may themselves not have been to university and, as such, may (consciously or unconsciously) teach their kids to undervalue higher education, which might make their kids less likely to stick with it even when they do go to university themselves.
In short, lower-income kids may be less prepared and less enthusiastic about university in the first place, leading them to drop out before finishing. A 2007 Statistics Canada study concluded something similar about university attendance in general: that poorer students don’t attend university as often, but not because of money per se, but because of lower academic performance and differing parental expectations. If this is true, though, it doesn’t mean there is no problem. Instead, it may mean that we need to concentrate less on grants to lower-income students and look more closely at public education to see if it can play a greater role in letting disadvantaged kids know that university is an option, and getting them ready to realize that choice.