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Ben Eisen & Jonathan Wensveen

Low tuition fees no panacea for low-income families

Student organizations and other like-minded groups frequently argue that low tuition levels are necessary to promote high rates of university participation and to ensure access for young adults from low-income families. However, evidence from across Canada shows there is no correlation between rock-bottom tuition fees and high university participation rates for economically disadvantaged youths.  Tuition levels vary considerably across Canada. In Manitoba, Newfoundland and Quebec, university tuitions are very low. The average tuition for undergraduates in these provinces was less than $3600 in 2010. In other provinces, including New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario, average tuition fees are much higher, ranging from $5500 to $6300. This variation allows us to empirically examine claims that cut-rate tuition boosts participation for young adults from low-income families.The evidence shows that university participation rates for economically disadvantaged youth are no higher in provinces where tuition is cheap than in provinces where it is more expensive. For example, Ontario and Nova Scotia have the highest and third-highest average university tuition levels in Canada. However, the most recent data from Statistics Canada shows these provinces have the highest university participation rates in Canada for high school graduates from low-income families. In 2007 Nova Scotia’s university participation rate for high school graduates from families in the bottom quarter of the family-income distribution was the highest in the country at 42.7 percent; Ontario’s was 42.5 percent, well above the national average. By comparison, the university participation rates for high school graduates from families in the bottom quarter of the income distribution in low-tuition Manitoba and Newfoundland were 36.7 and 30.1 percent.When all the provinces are examined, we see that low-tuition provinces do not generally have higher university participation rates for economically disadvantaged youths. Nor is there greater equality in participation rates across the income distribution in low-tuition provinces.… Read More