Which social backgrounds affect postsecondary education?

Nipissing University sociologist David Zarifa studies the educational and labour market experiences of disadvantaged youth, and he has good news and bad news.

The good news: access to undergraduate education continues to increase for traditionally disadvantaged students, including those from low-income families or whose parents did not continue past high school.

The bad news: at the higher levels — post-graduate and professional programs — the playing field is much less level.

Zarifa came to this conclusion after a close examination of the year 2000 cohort of Statistics Canada’s National Graduate Survey. The survey looks at the experience of 35,000 undergraduates who completed various programs across all provinces and territories.

Sociologists have long known that social origins can influence a student’s educational experience, directly through parents’ level of education and indirectly through student performance, aspirations and academic confidence. But there is very little research in Canada about how social origins influence professional or graduate school attendance.

When Zarifa crunched the Statistics Canada numbers, he found nearly 35 per cent of undergrads whose parents had a master’s or doctorate degree entered a professional or graduate level program. That compares to only about 13 per cent of graduates whose parents did not have a postsecondary education.

He also found about 21 per cent of graduates without government-sponsored student loans entered a graduate or professional program, compared to only about 14 per cent of graduates with loans above $15,000.

Zarifa says he is discouraged to see parent education still has an impact at the graduate and professional level, even when taking into consideration other important factors such as academic abilities, aspirations, and the educational experiences of graduates.

“You would hope by the time students have their undergraduate degree, they wouldn’t have this disadvantage in carrying on and trying to better their career prospects,” he says.

He hopes his study draws attention to some of the challenges facing groups from less privileged backgrounds: “While more and more students are continuing on into some form of postsecondary education, not all social groups are accessing the most lucrative segments within the postsecondary system equally.”

David Zarifa

Nipissing University

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