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Distance as a postsecondary access issue

Distance poses a barrier for university attendance
Colleges are more accessible


After much debate over the past quarter century about the impacts of technological change on skills, the consensus today is that skill requirements are increasing for most jobs. In part, those rising skill requirements are a direct result of changes in technology, especially the increasingly intensive use of computer and communications technologies. They are the result, as well, of changes that have taken place in the organization of work, in job design, and in the industrial and occupational composition of employment.

While traditional jobs continue to exist-in the retail sector, for instance-many of the new jobs that are being created are increasingly found in professional and technical occupations. In addition, many 'traditional' jobs are experiencing significant changes in skill content. Truckers routinely use on-board computers, for example, and many farmers have become experts at analysing data relating to weather, crops and markets.

The emergence of the knowledge economy has been widespread and continuous over the past three decades. Knowledge workers-managers, professionals and workers in technical occupations-account for a growing share of the labour force in most industries.1 According to a recent report by Human Resources Development Canada, by 2004, more than 70% of all new jobs created in Canada will require some form of postsecondary education; 25% will require a university degree. In contrast, only 6% of new jobs will require less than a high school education.2

Canadians are aware of the sweeping changes that are taking place in the economy and in society. This is reflected in the high educational aspirations they have for their children. Data from the 2000 Survey of Approaches to Educational Planning show that the vast majority of parents believe that getting more education after high school, especially a university degree, is very important or important.3

The demand for workers with advanced education and training continues to grow. Most parents hope that their children will complete university. This raises the question of access to postsecondary education: are all students who are eligible academically for a university education able, in fact, to go on to complete a university degree?

The question of barriers to postsecondary access is complex and continues to be the subject of a great deal of debate and research. Often, the focus of that research is on the barrier to attending college or university that is posed by the cost of tuition, books and living expenses. Attitudinal barriers can play a role when an individual comes from a family or a community where going on to postsecondary studies is not part of the culture. Lack of information about career choices, programs of study, or sources of financial assistance can pose a barrier as well.4

Another potential barrier is that of distance. In a country as vast as Canada, it can be expected that some individuals must make the decision to leave home if they want to pursue a postsecondary education.

Distance poses a barrier for university attendance

Two recent Statistics Canada studies by Marc Frenette have looked at the role that distance plays in the decision to go to university5 and in the choice between college and university.6 The results of his research are summarized here.

The argument goes that students from families that live near a university have the cost-saving alternative of staying at home while attending the local university and thereby avoiding the added living and moving costs associated with leaving home to attend school. Students living out of commuting distance do not have this option and so may be less likely to attend university, especially if they are from a lower-income family.

Using data from the Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics (SLID), Frenette identified where students lived when they were two years away from high school graduation. Because SLID collects information on the same group of people over a period of six years, it is possible to determine what those students were doing two years later, including whether they were enrolled in university and if so, where. The analysis included all SLID students who were two years away from high school graduation between 1993 and 1997.

Why focus on distance as a barrier to university attendance but not to college attendance as well? The answer is fairly simple-and perhaps surprising to some. Universities are generally clustered around major urban centres, whereas community colleges are more widely distributed. For his analysis, Frenette defined 'commuting distance' as living within an 80-kilometre radius of a college or university. Based on straight-line distance, 20% of high school students lived more than 80 kilometres from a university-beyond commuting distance for most, especially considering that actual driving distance is likely to be much more than the straight-line distance. However, only 3% of high school students lived beyond commuting distance of a community college. Distance clearly affects a larger proportion of students who wish to go to university rather than to college.

There are large variations across provinces in the percentage of the population that lives more than 80 kilometres from the nearest university. More than 50% of Saskatchewan residents and more than 40% of the residents of Newfoundland and Labrador live beyond commuting distance of a university. In contrast, much smaller percentages of the populations of Ontario (9%), Nova Scotia (13%), and Prince Edward Island (14%) live more than 80 kilometres from the closest university.

Distance to the closest university is not simply a rural issue. In fact, 50% of rural students live within commuting distance of a university. However, among high school students living in urban areas with fewer than 30,000 people, half lived beyond commuting distance of the nearest university. Even among those living in urban areas with 30,000 to 99,999 people, one-quarter lived more than 80 kilometres away from the nearest university.

Distance appears to play a much bigger role for students in families in lower income brackets. Family incomes were ranked from top to bottom and divided into three equal groups or tiers. Students from families in the top income tier and living within 40 kilometres of a university were 1.9 times more likely to attend university than students from families in the bottom income tier living in the same distance range. Beyond 80 kilometres, however, students from the top third of families in terms of income were almost 6 times more likely than students from the bottom third to attend university.

Gender also matters. Overall, female students living within 80 kilometres of a university were far more likely than male students to attend. However, distance to university has a greater negative impact on the female university participation rate. Beyond 80 kilometres, there was no difference between males and females in the likelihood of attending university.

Why does distance matter? Frenette suggests three possible reasons.

The first reason is financial costs. Moving and living costs will be significantly higher for students who must leave home to go to school. This is likely to pose a bigger deterrent to students who come from families that are less well-off. Further, while student loan programs are designed to recognize the higher costs associated with having to move away from home in order to go to school, students may not be willing to take on the larger debt load associated with these larger loans.

The second reason is emotional costs. Students have a social network of family and friends that they may not be willing to give up in order to attend university.

The third reason is that students in locations where there is no university nearby may not be fully aware of the benefits of having a university education. In locations that are distant from a university, the percentage of the adult population with a university degree tends to be lower and relatively fewer jobs require one. In fact, 18% of students living within 40 kilometres of a university had at least one parent with a university degree, compared with 11% of students who live beyond 80 kilometres of a university. This is referred to as a 'neighbourhood educational attainment effect,' whereby adult role models in one's neighbourhood may influence one's choice of attending university or not.

A study by Fernando Cartwright and Mary Allen7 highlights the important role played by such community characteristics. Using data from the 2000 Programme for International Student Assessment, they found that students from urban schools scored significantly higher than students from rural schools in reading. Differences in the schools themselves explained only a very small part of the differences in reading achievement. What did matter a great deal were differences between rural and urban communities in the average educational attainment of adults in the community, the community employment rates, and the educational requirements and earning capacity of jobs in the community.

Similar types of factors are likely to have an influence on the percentage of young people who choose to leave home in order to go to university. In communities where the percentage of adults with a university education is relatively low, young people will have few role models to follow in pursuing a university education. Perhaps more importantly, if there are relatively few jobs in their community that require higher skills and higher levels of education, there may be no clear incentive for them to decide to go away to attend school, especially if they have no intention of moving away in the long term to find employment that would require a university education.

Colleges are more accessible

In his second paper, Frenette extends his analysis to look at the choices students make between college and university. He finds that most students (83%) live within 80 kilometres-his definition of commuting distance-of both a university and a college. Another 14% are within commuting distance of a college only, and just 3% live beyond commuting distance of either type of institution. From the first study, we know that students living in outlying areas are less likely to attend university, but many of these students have local access to a college. The second study asks whether the overall postsecondary participation rate (both college and university together) is lower for these students.

When a student lives beyond commuting range of a university, he or she is far more likely to attend college if there is one nearby (see chart below). As a result, postsecondary participation rates are about the same for students living near a college only or near both a college and a university-about 40%. The uptake in college attendance occurs among students from lower- and middle-income families. Students in these income groups are most negatively affected by distance in accessing universities. Students from the top income tier are no more likely to attend college when it is the only choice nearby; distance does not discourage them from choosing to go away to university.

These findings are consistent with the argument that the increased costs associated with moving away in order to go to school can act as a deterrent to pursuing a university education. However, the overall demand for a postsecondary education does not change, with community colleges forming the alternative for many students, especially for those whose families fall in the middle and bottom thirds of the income distribution.

There are other implications as well. Colleges may serve a local purpose, providing students with the specific education and skills needed in the local community. From this point of view, having widespread access to colleges is desirable. However, given the differences between college and university in program content and type of credential earned, the career goals of college students are likely to be different from those of university students. Some students may in fact have goals that can only be fulfilled by a university education but find they cannot attend university because it would require them to move way from home. In the end, then, those young people have fewer choices available to them and are less likely to meet their goals than students who have both options available to them.

Figure 1. University and college participation by distance to nearest university

Figure 1. University and college participation by distance to nearest university

Source: Marc Frenette, 2003. Access to College and University: Does Distance Matter? Statistics Canada Catalogue number 11F0019MIE2003201.

Family income is a factor in the relationship between distance and the choice of college or university. Young people from families that are less well-off in communities without a university nearby choose to go to university less often than either students in higher-income families in those communities or students within commuting distance of a university. Costs, availability of information about programs of study and sources of student financial aid, and attitudes about the value of having a university education can all play a role in the decision of whether to go away to school or not.

In the end, it is clear that the interest in having a postsecondary education is as strong among young people in communities some distance away from a university as it is in young people who live close to one. The choices they make tend to be different, however, with more students choosing to go to the nearby college than to the far-away university. The mitigating factor is family income: participation in university is higher among relatively well-off students than among less well-off students, especially if going to university means that they must leave their home communities.


This article is based on Marc Frenette, 2002. Too far to go on? Distance to school and university participation. Statistics Canada Catalogue Number 11F0019MIE – Number 191 and Marc Frenette, 2003. Access to college and university: Does distance matter? Statistics Canada Catalogue Number 11F0019MIE – Number 201.


  1. John R. Baldwin and Desmond Beckstead, 2003. Knowledge Workers in Canada’s Economy, 1971–2001, Statistics Canada Catalogue number 11-624-MIE2003004.

  2. Human Resources Development Canada, 2002. Knowledge Matters: Skills and Learning for Canadians, (last access April 15, 2004).

  3. Lisa Shipley, 2003. Planning and Preparation: First Results from the Survey of Approaches to Educational Planning (SAEP) 2002, Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-595-MIE2003010.

  4. Later issues of Education Matters will discuss other factors that can affect participation in postsecondary education.

  5. Marc Frenette, 2002. Too Far to Go On? Distance to School and University Participation, Statistics Canada Catalogue number 11F0019MIE2002191.

  6. Marc Frenette, 2003. Access to College and University: Does Distance Matter? Statistics Canada Catalogue number 11F0019MIE2003201.

  7. Fernando Cartwright and Mary K. Allen, 2002. Understanding the Rural–Urban Reading Gap, Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-595-MIE2002001.

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