Cheap tuition does little to boost university access

September 16, 2011 | By | Reply More

Troy Media – By Ben Eisen

Labour Day has come and gone, which means university students across Canada are now finalizing their first set of tuition payments for the new academic year.

Tuition levels vary considerably across Canada. In Manitoba, Newfoundland and Quebec, average annual tuition fees are very low, at less than $3, 600 in all three provinces in 2010. In other provinces, including Alberta, Nova Scotia and Ontario average tuition fees are higher, ranging from $5, 300 to $6, 300.

Students unions claim that high tuition fees impede university participation for young adults from low-income families. Does empirical evidence support such a claim?

Bogus claim

No. In fact, the evidence from across Canada shows there is no correlation between rock-bottom tuition fees and high rates of university 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 young adults from families that fall in the bottom quarter of the family-income distribution was the highest in the country at 42.7 per cent; Ontario’s was 42.5 per cent. By comparison, the university participation rates for youth in the bottom quarter of the income distribution in low-tuition Manitoba and Newfoundland were 36.7 and 30.1 per cent, respectively.

Alberta’s low-income participation rate was 35.6 per cent in 2007, just under the national average. Alberta also has a low overall rate of university participation. However, these numbers can’t logically be blamed on high tuition fees, considering that Nova Scotia and Ontario have high rates of university participation for youth from low-income families despite higher undergraduate tuition fees than Alberta. It is also noteworthy that Alberta had a higher low-income university participation rate in 2007 than low-tuition provinces Newfoundland and Quebec.

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. In all provinces, high school graduates from high-income families participate in university at higher rates than those from low-income families. However, that gap is smaller in several high-tuition provinces, including Ontario, Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, than in Quebec, Manitoba and Newfoundland.

Rock-bottom prices

These facts suggest that whether a province chooses to set tuition fees at the rock-bottom levels of Manitoba and Newfoundland or the somewhat higher levels of Ontario and Alberta has little effect on low-income participation rates. If there is any effect at all, it is swamped by other, more important factors. Tuition is subsidized all across Canada, which means the price of a university education is a bargain in high- and low-tuition provinces alike. It is therefore unsurprising that the tuition gap between Canadian jurisdictions does not seem to be a decisive factor in shaping university participation decisions.

There is a broad social consensus that financial obstacles should not prevent young adults in low-income families from pursuing a university education. The question is whether maintaining rock-bottom tuition levels, at considerable cost to taxpayers, is an efficient and effective strategy for achieving this objective. The evidence from across Canada suggests it is not.

Ben Eisen and Jonathan Wensveen are public policy analysts at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and co-authors of Tuition Fees and University Participation for Youth from Low-Income Families: An Interprovincial Analysis (

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Category: Canada, Education

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