Why so many students in the north aren’t going to college or university

A recent study found that young people in northern Ontario are much less likely to pursue post-secondary education than their southern peers. Here’s why
By Claude Sharma - Published on September 14, 2018
Billboard advertising Northern College.
Northern College believes more northern Ontarians will enrol in post-secondary education if they see options closer to home.

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SUDBURY — Paige Genier recently wrapped up a summer job as a lifeguard, and she’s now taking the next plunge in life. In late August, the 18-year-old moved more than 700 kilometres from her hometown of Cochrane, population 5,300, to study human kinetics at the University of Ottawa. “I wanted to get the full city experience,” says Genier, who has lived her entire life in the same house, about an hour’s drive north of Timmins.

Genier’s family had the resources to facilitate her move. Many of her northern Ontario peers are less fortunate.

According to a paper published in the June issue of Rural Sociology, young people from remote northern regions of Canadian provinces are significantly less likely than those in southern urban areas to attend post-secondary school. The authors — two of whom are sociologists from Nipissing University — note that scholars worldwide have examined the issue of access to tertiary education in remote regions. Their study is among the first to look at the issue as it pertains to Canada.

The researchers drew on Statistics Canada’s 2010 Youth in Transition Survey, which captured data on the major life events of 13,500 people between the ages of 15 and 21 — roughly 5,000 of whom were from Ontario. An analysis of the data revealed that by age 21, about 47 per cent of youth from southern urban areas had attended university, compared with just 40 per cent of youth from northern urban areas and 30 per cent from northern rural regions.

Lead author David Zarifa identified three major challenges for northern students when it comes to accessing post-secondary education: geography, the socioeconomic status of parents, and family attitudes regarding education prospects.

Those in urban areas tend to have post-secondary options close to home. Four of the five most populous cities in northern Ontario boast English-language universities — the fifth, Timmins, is home to Northern College, which offers undergraduate degrees in partnership with Sault Ste. Marie’s Algoma University.

But students from more remote areas are often forced to migrate hundreds of kilometres to attend college or university. And the farther they have to travel, Zarifa says, the higher the costs of relocating and commuting.

Low income is another well-established barrier to participation in post-secondary education, and the parents of northern students earn less money on average than their counterparts in southern regions. According to Statistics Canada data from 2015, the median household income in northeastern Ontario was $64,000, compared with $74,000 for the province as a whole.

As well, parents who have pursued post-secondary education are more likely to encourage their children to follow in their footsteps, Zarifa says. But David Robinson, a professor of economics at Laurentian University, notes that many northern Ontario families don’t have a history of sending children to pursue degrees and diplomas — a fact that can partly be explained by the region’s economic past.

“[For] people from working-class origins, especially up until the ’60s, it was unusual for them to get a chance to go to university,” Robinson says. Men traditionally sought jobs in northern Ontario’s mainstay industries: mining, forestry, and agriculture — and women stayed home. It wasn’t until the ’60s that universities started to appear in the north.

Charles Cirtwill, of the Northern Policy Institute, says northern Ontario parents might be overly skeptical about their ability to send their children to college or university. While tuition has risen over the decades, the overall financial equation, he says, has improved in recent years, thanks to increases in student assistance, including Ontario’s student grant system.

Another issue is that many students in the north are Indigenous or francophone, and the hurdles they must clear to access post-secondary education are considerable, says Sami Pritchard of the Canadian Federation of Students’ executive committee. “There appears to be a growing recognition over the past several years that francophone and Indigenous students are being underserved in post-secondary education in this province and that something needs to be done,” she wrote in an email to TVO.org.

Pritchard notes that increases to the federal Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP), which is intended to help Indigenous students attend college or university, have been capped at a 2 per cent per year since the 1990s, despite a much faster rise in the number of eligible students. That disparity has resulted in thousands of youth being placed on waiting lists for education grants.

Post-secondary institutions in northern Ontario are taking steps to attract students from within the region and beyond. TVO.org contacted two northern colleges and three northern universities for this story; all have Indigenous outreach programs that seek out students in remote First Nations, and all offer distance- and online-education options, in part to provide access to those who can’t leave home.

"We're now in a position to provide options for students to stay,” says Fred Gibbons, president of Northern College, “as opposed to reasons to have to leave.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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