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Lowering Barriers to Higher Ed

Helping high school students apply to college and university leads to higher enrolment, study finds

For elementary school students, the transition from one grade to another can be summed up in two words: switch rooms. Moving from high school into a post-secondary institution is something else entirely, involving a maze of program catalogues, forms, fee schedules and financial aid options. The difficulty of this process may actually be stopping many qualified students from progressing with their education after high school, says Philip Oreopoulos, a professor of economics and public policy at U of T. His research has shown that when such roadblocks are removed, post-­secondary application and enrolment rates surge.

Over the past few years, Oreopoulos and his research team have offered every graduating senior in a sample of Ontario schools assistance with their college or university application. The result? An increase in applications by as much as 24 per cent. The largest increases tended to occur for two-year college programs.

One of the biggest obstacles for students seems to be the application fee, which is standard across all Ontario post-secondary institutions. “Even though it’s just $100, it’s a big component,” says Oreopoulos. As a behavioural economist, he’s particularly interested in how relatively small financial barriers – even to something that offers considerable advantages in the long run – can sometimes be perceived as much larger. “Individuals,” he says, “are not always perfectly foresighted when thinking about decisions that involve immediate costs and long-term benefits.”

Oreopoulos also found that students were insufficiently exposed to the breadth of post-secondary programs available to them; many assumed that a bachelor of arts was their only option. Holding information sessions during classroom time increased awareness of these options, too – currently, most sessions are held over the lunch hour or after school.

Oreopoulos is working with the Ontario government to expand his research, and he hopes the program will eventually find a permanent home within all high schools across the province.

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