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How much is a university degree worth? Depends on how rich you are

Fall has always been a time of change in Canada; the leaves change, our strangely aggressive geese fly south and a new cohort of students begin an uncertain journey into adulthood at one of Canada's university campuses. These students will join approximately one million others currently working toward degrees nationwide.

The vast majority of this million are youth who have recently graduated from high school. They are hoping their university days will propel them into a fulfilling career. They know that university will be necessary to seriously compete in the labour market over the long term. Moreover, when they graduate, they will be the most highly educated generation in our history. They will approach the challenges of the 21 st century having closely studied science, history, the arts, technology, philosophy, psychology and more.

While it's tempting to get swept up in the hope that this represents, it must also be remembered that much of the swelling in the ranks of university graduates has come from students with means. Participation rates for students in the highest-income quartile increased by nearly 20 per cent between 2000 and 2007, while participation of those in the lowest-income quartile remained relatively constant.

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Further, enrollment growth has left aboriginal youth, Canada's fastest-growing population, behind. The proportion of the non-aboriginal population with a university degree increased from 8 to 23.4 per cent between the 1980's and 2000's. Aboriginal degree attainment rates increased from only 2 to 7 per cent in this same time period.

It's worth noting that Canadian governments haven't been blind to these challenges. Over the same time period, spending on non-repayable financial assistance for students with financial need has increased substantially. In Ontario alone, spending on non-repayable student support has increased by over $312-million over the past five years. However, despite heavy investment and the best intentions, inequalities in university participation have persisted.

Here's why: Whether subconsciously or consciously, every youth assesses the value proposition of attending university and arrives at an answer. The parameters of this value proposition change depending on the barriers facing a youth over the course of their life.

For someone like me, whose parents had university degrees, grew up in a middle-income household and had time to focus on my homework, attending university was almost an expectation. Tuition was expensive, but the availability of financial aid and the promise of a better career made attending university an easy choice to make.

However, every shred of available research shows that this value assessment works very differently for youth from marginalized communities. In one study, low-income Canadians estimated tuition costs for a four-year degree to be nearly double what they actually are. They were also more likely to believe that their post-graduate earnings would not be worth the up-front costs. For a high-school student whose parents struggle with debt, or who has to work in the evenings to help pay the bills, the barriers to attending can seem much larger.

Making matters worse, knowledge of the government's aforementioned financial assistance initiatives is not robust. Over 70 per cent of Canadia youth aged 14-17 felt that they had very little or no information about student loan repayment, while over 60 per cent felt that they did not have enough information about student loans.

Poor knowledge of public financial aid, plus the myriad social and motivational barriers faced by many youth add together to make university a difficult choice for many.

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University will only become more important to Canada's success. This year's entering class will be better placed to succeed in the coming century than any other group. However, their position is one of privilege. In order to truly create an equal playing field, more action must be directed at changing how the costs of university are perceived.

Chris Martin is the director of research for the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

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