Entering a post-secondary education (PSE) programme is only a beginning and many different pathways can follow. Some students continue in their initial programme until graduation. Some switch to a new one – sometimes at a new institution or at a different level. Others abandon their studies, or return to them later.
Understanding the frequency of each of these routes is important to students, institutions, policymakers and society given that PSE is one of the main pillars on which modern economies depend. Hence, related metrics are often employed to evaluate institution and system-wide performance. The challenge is to track students across different programmes and institutions, and through any withdrawals and later re-entry. Indeed, any full understanding of the issues would also take in family characteristics and other background factors, as well as programme of study, preparation level and other schooling factors.
Due principally to these onerous data requirements, relatively little is known in Canada – or in most other countries – about system-wide PSE persistence, and the pathways to the successful completion of a credential. Most of the limited work undertaken to date is restricted to studies at individual institutions. An exception is work that one of us did a few years ago with Statistics Canada analyst Theresa Qiu, which used both system-wide administrative data on students and the agency’s 2010 Youth in Transition Survey of the major educational and professional transitions in young people’s lives. This made it possible to track representative student samples from PSE entry through their various pathways, including switches across programmes and periods out.
The study found that after five years, graduation rates from first programmes are just 56.5 per cent for community college students and 52.1 per cent for university students. These figures roughly approximate to most other empirical evidence to date, and the apparently low rate of progress to graduation has caused significant alarm in Canada.
But when programme switchers and leavers who subsequently return to university are included, five-year graduation rates rise to 73 per cent. Furthermore, “total” persistence rates, which also take into account those who are still in PSE (but not necessarily at their initial institution or programme) are 82 per cent for community colleges and 90 per cent for universities.
That is, “persistence” rates rise from just over half to not far below what is perhaps the maximum that could reasonably be expected. Or, stated differently, “dropout rates” go from almost 50 per cent to about 30 per cent to just 10 per cent as increasingly wider lenses are employed.
Further progress on analysing student persistence, pathways and progress to graduation will be made possible by a Statistics Canada programme to develop linked PSE administrative data files covering all student experiences at all institutions throughout the country on a year-to-year basis. The Education Longitudinal Linkage Platform will also include individuals’ tax data and will permit entire PSE profiles to be related to post-PSE labour market and other life outcomes. Furthermore, a number of Canadian provinces are tracking students all the way from their entry into primary school through to their post-schooling years: this information, too, can be added to the full set of linked files.
As recently reported in Times Higher Education, New Zealand is already able to carry out similar analyses via its integrated data infrastructure. But, in Canada, there are plans to add links to other data files, including administrative information covering, for example, income support programmes, health data and even incarcerations.
Once completed, these data linkages will allow us to map a complete picture of PSE progress on to any of the individual experiences and outcomes that might affect or be affected by it – or the lack of it. Such a rich analysis has never been carried out before in Canada or, to our knowledge, anywhere else.
Ross Finnie is director of the Education Policy Research Initiative (EPRI) and a professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. Richard E. Mueller is associate director of EPRI and professor of economics at the University of Lethbridge. Arthur Sweetman is associate director of EPRI and professor of economics at McMaster University.