The changes to financial aid ushered in by Thursday's Ontario budget are an experiment that will take years to play out and will have to be followed by other intensive investments if accessibility is to be improved, experts say.
The government has said most students with family incomes of less than $50,000 will receive grants that will cover the cost of average tuition at universities and colleges in Ontario, and the system will be simplified so that all who receive financial aid will know quickly how much they will have to pay back in loans.
Although many experts are enthusiastic that the government replaced a generation's worth of complicated tax credits, loans and grants with one upfront grant, they also say the changes are only a first step.
"One of the nice things about policies that are focused on finances and affordability is that they're pretty easy," said Ross Finnie, the director of the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa.
Once tuition and aid are looked after, students' motivation and relationship to the secondary-school system will have to be addressed.
"These measures don't have to cost very much and they may be the most effective of all."
Dr. Finnie has written studies on the relationship between family income and postsecondary education. If how much parents earn matters, offsetting tuition costs should draw more students to college and university.
Instead, Dr. Finnie's surprising conclusion is that whether a student is rich or poor has little influence on their decision to pursue college or university. In fact, a difference in parental income of $50,000 is associated with only a 2-per-cent difference in university attendance rates. What matters much more is whether parents themselves went on to higher education. (And what matters most is being a visible-minority immigrant.)
Those explanations focus on how children grew up, whether their parents had high expectations and instilled good work habits and diligence.
"You can call it motivation, you can call it orientation, you can call it preparation. We sort of use the word 'culture.' … There is a set of concepts that all mean it's not about money," Dr. Finnie said.
Still, he supports the changes in the budget.
"It essentially gets the financial aspect of these issues off the table … and it will bring focus to what is it that changes a young person's decision," he said.
To be effective, programs to improve the likelihood disadvantaged students will pursue postsecondary education must start in high school. Many essentially deal with what happens outside school.
"Students who come from middle- and high-income families are from birth enrolled in a program of moving into participation in postsecondary education," said Fiona Deller, an executive director at the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, an educational think tank of the Ontario government. "For youth who don't come from those backgrounds, that's what these programs try to replicate."
Ms. Deller designed one such project in Hamilton. It gives mentoring and academic support to students in Grades 6 to 8, intervenes if they are deemed to be at risk of not finishing high school, and helps their families plan for postsecondary.
"A lot of it is building self confidence, a lot of it is about helping students see themselves on that path. That means campus visits, role models, mentors who spend time with them saying, 'You can do this,'" she said.
If students think they belong in higher education, they are more likely to work toward it. That is why Ms. Deller believes that for low-income students, knowing tuition will be covered makes a difference.
"Anybody with low income will tell you that income matters a lot. There's a chaos of barriers. … Do I see myself there, do I have the money to go, have any of my peers gone? [The changes are] sending a message that tuition is not going to be a barrier," Ms. Deller said.
Just how much of a difference the changes will make should be clear not long after the new aid program begins in 2017.
"Within a few years, we should be able to observe the effectiveness," Dr. Finnie said. "Do we see jumps in student participation, and in particular, do we see movements of those students who are affected most, the lowest-income students. It's what we call a natural experiment."