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Study: Why are youth from lower-income families less likely to attend university?

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The Daily

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The gap in university attendance between youth from higher- and lower-income families is largely related to differences in academic performance at age 15 and parental influences, and to a lesser degree financial constraints, according to a new study.

In 2003, under one-third (31%) of 19-year-old youth from families in the bottom 25% of the income distribution had attended university. In contrast, one-half (50%) of young people of the same age from families at the top of the income distribution had attended university.

The study found only weak evidence that financial constraints were a direct barrier to attending university.

Instead, it found that the gap is almost entirely associated with differences in academic performance and parental influences. In fact, about 84% of the gap was related to differences in the characteristics of youth from different economic backgrounds, that is, their academic performance, parents' level of education, parental expectations, high school attended, and so on.

In contrast, only 12% of the gap in university attendance was related to the higher incidence of being "financially constrained" among lower-income youth.

Weaker academic performance among lower-income youth accounted for just over one-third (34%) of the gap. Specifically, young people from more disadvantaged backgrounds had a poorer performance on a standardized reading test and reported lower overall school marks at age 15.

Note to readers

This release is based on the research study "Why are youth from lower-income families less likely to attend university? Evidence from academic abilities, parental influences and financial constraints" available today.

The study used data from the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS), Cohort A. The survey followed young people starting when they were 15 years old in 1999 to the age of 19 in 2003. Information collected when they were 15 includes overall school marks, parental education and parental expectations. Information on their university participation was collected when they were 19.

Students were also administered standardized tests in reading, mathematics, and science when they were 15.

These tests were conducted as part of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a collaborative effort among member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Canada and 40 other countries participated in PISA 2003.

The study also classified students as being "financially constrained" if they did not attend university despite wanting to do so and reported that their financial situation was standing in their way of going on to university.

An additional 30% of the gap was related to the lower levels of education of the parents of lower-income youth. About 12% was associated with the lower educational expectations placed upon lower-income youth by their parents. Other student characteristics played more moderate roles, accounting for a further 8% of the gap collectively.

These results suggest that the income divide in university participation is largely the result of factors that are present well before most youth begin to consider university.

Youth from higher- and lower-income families had very different characteristics

Young people from different economic backgrounds had very different characteristics, according to the study.

For example, only 18% of youth from families in the bottom 25% of the income distribution scored in the top 25% on the standardized reading test. In contrast, 33% of youth from families in the top income quartile did so.

Lower-income youth also fared more poorly in school, as only 36% of them reported overall marks of 80% or higher. In contrast, virtually one-half (49%) of higher-income youth fell in the same category for their overall marks.

Young people from different economic backgrounds also had very different parental influences. For example, only 16% of lower-income youth had a parent who possessed a university degree. Among higher-income youth, just over one-half (51%) had a parent with a university degree.

The study also found that youth from lower-income families had lower expectations placed upon them. Although as many as 62% had parents who expected them to complete a university degree, this was well behind the 79% of higher-income youth in the same situation.

Lower-income youth also attended high schools where students had lower odds of pursuing university.

All of these factors — performance on the standardized reading test, overall school marks, parental education, parental expectations, and high school attended — were strongly associated with university attendance.

Overall, differences in these factors accounted for most of the gap in university attendance between students from different economic backgrounds.

The study also found that lower-income youth had lower levels of self-esteem and control over their life, were more likely to live with only one parent, attached less importance to schooling in shaping their likely future career success, and had fewer friends who planned on pursuing further education after high school.

However, these factors were not associated with university attendance once academic performance, parental education, and parental expectations were taken into account.

Family income may pose a range of barriers to attending university

Lower family income may pose a range of barriers to attending university.

First, differences in academic performance at age 15 across the income distribution may themselves be the result of differences in family income. Families with more financial resources typically spend more money on books for children, take their children to museums, spend more on daycare in the early years, locate in neighbourhoods with better schools, and provide a more school-oriented home environment from early ages.

These actions may result in higher performance on standardized and scholastic tests, at age 15 where this study began, and thus, a higher probability of attending university in the future.

Second, even if they want to attend university, and have the grades to do so, students may be faced with another barrier that is related to their family's financial position: financial constraints.

However, the evidence presented in this study casts some doubt on the widespread existence of financial constraints in Canada.

In fact, only 9.5% of all youth report that money was a factor in their decision not to attend university.

Although more lower-income youth (13.4%) than higher-income youth (5.9%) reported money as a factor, this difference only accounted for a small proportion of the overall gap in university attendance, once academic performance and parental influences were taken into account.

Similar research in the United States also found very little evidence of financial constraints being the main barrier.

Despite the weak evidence on financial constraints, there are two important caveats to keep in mind. First, even if financial constraints do not pose a significant barrier for the population of youth as a whole, they may matter for certain groups of students in some instances.

For example, previous research has shown that growing up out-of-commuting distance to a university poses a barrier to attending, and this effect is stronger among youth from lower-income families. This is likely related to the added costs associated with moving out of the parental home to attend (more than $5,000 per academic year, on average).

Second, even if financial constraints appear in this study to be of minor importance, it is important to note that this is still conditional on the existing post-secondary financial aid system.

What the findings of the study do suggest is that in order to better understand why some youth attend university while others do not, future research will need to consider factors prior to age 15 (where this study began).

The study "Why are youth from lower-income families less likely to attend university? Evidence from academic abilities, parental influences and financial constraints" is now available as part of the Analytical Studies Branch Research Paper Series (11F0019MIE2007295, free) from the Publications module of our website.

Related studies from the Business and Labour Market Analysis Division can be found at Update on Analytical Studies Research (11-015-XIE, free) on our website.

For further information or to enquire about the concepts, methods or data quality of this release, contact Marc Frenette (613-951-4228), Business and Labour Market Analysis Division.