Make time for early outreach

Only by reaching out to students early will be be able to achieve our educational goals

Professor Ross Finnie says the government’s focus is misguided.
Professor Ross Finnie says the government’s focus is misguided.

Kieran Slobodin, ArtSci ’12

There are many questions that students must ask themselves when deciding what to do after high school. There are the common questions like “Do I want to take a year off?” or “Do I want to go to college or university?”

A lot of students will ask themselves “How do I plan on paying for this?” Others will stress more about living with a roommate. 

While details are important when deciding on one’s post-secondary path, the first question should be, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”

That’s what Early Outreach is about: engaging youth in informative dialogue about what they want to do in life and about which post-secondary options will help them reach their goals.

To effectively have this dialogue, students need to be well informed about everything from entrance requirements, program options, financial aid and academic expectations.

This process must start early—a Council of Ontario Universities study found that 73 per cent of students make the decision to attend university before the age of 15 and 35 percent of students decide before the age of nine—and should involve high schools, parents, and the community.

The role of educating students about their options is the responsibility of the provincial government. There are numerous ways to reach out to students about higher education.

The government has not yet explored every method and has had mixed results with its current approach. Some models, like the Pathways to Education program originating in Regent Park, Toronto, have had substantial success. Other approaches have not.

The most important part of crafting any public policy is research. Before deciding on a course of action, governments must be aware of the issue, who’s affected by it, and what the most effective solution is.

In the subject of early outreach, the government has done its homework, so to speak, by having the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario conduct several studies into areas of early outreach as well as reviewing some of its current programs.

This process has resulted in the cancellation of funding for programs that encourage first generation students to attend higher education.

First generation students are students whose parents did not attend any form of post-secondary education and, consequently, are more likely to have unrealistic expectations of college and university in terms of workload, cost and lifestyle.

The provincial government has instead directed funding towards programs that are designed to retain first-generation students and ensure they complete post-secondary education successfully.

The research, however, disagrees. In a recent study led by Professor Ross Finnie of the University of Ottawa, it was found that first-generation students are not any less likely to complete their post-secondary accreditation.

This study has prompted both Professor Finnie and the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, of which the Alma Mater Society is a member, to urge the provincial government to reconsider its decision.

It’s important to note that the government has committed a lot of funding to first generation enrolment programs in the past. In fact, over $30 million has been committed to such programs since 2007.

However, now that the funding is no longer there, these programs are shutting down and Ontario is losing a valuable and meaningful opportunity to reach out to first-generation students.

These changes are affecting Queen’s. The University has run a very popular program for first-generation students across Ontario that allowed them to experience a day-in-the-life of a university student.

The program was designed to introduce students to the university experience and dispel a lot of the myths that obscure the realities of higher education.

In addition to employing a coordinator for first-generation programs, Queen’s offered bursaries to low-income students involved with the program.

With the recent funding changes, the program isn’t likely to survive and similar programs across Ontario are likely to be pulled as well.

Both York University and the University of Toronto have cancelled similar programs. In times of fiscal constraint and projected budget cuts of up to 15 per cent, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more of these programs go.

The provincial government has defended its position by saying not enough students are graduating and they want to see more first-generation students completing their degrees. But it needs to get the students to college and university first.

Certainly at an institution like Queen’s, that boasts boisterous student spirit and one of the highest retention rates in the country, it is hard to agree with the government.

Along with its 2010 budget, the provincial government has set an astonishing goal of 70 per cent participation in higher education.

The only way the government can reach such a number is by targeting programs to underrepresented groups and to disperse the myths that cloud higher education.

The government needs an access strategy that is targeted and grounded in sound research and the example of first-generation programs is a simple, easy start.

Often, the motivations behind early outreach are misconstrued as an attempt to increase enrolment and fill empty seats.

It’s not; it’s about helping students reach their goals by making them aware of which pathways will get them there.

No student should think that because their parents didn’t go to university they cannot achieve their dreams.

Early outreach is about getting students to where they want to be and removing the barriers that are in their way.

Kieran Slobodin is the AMS Commissioner of Academic Affairs.

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