If you build it, they will come: The impact of new universities on local youth
Current evidence on distance and university participation
Creating new universities
Rise in university participation after the creation of new institutions
College participation declines
Stronger effects for low-income families, weaker ones for Aboriginal families
Earnings rise for women, but not for men
In an increasingly knowledge-based economy, the key to equity in economic opportunity lies in equity in access to a university education. While the odd billionaire high school dropout does exist, this is generally not the norm.
A recent study has shown that from 1981 to 2001, university graduates aged 25 to 34 saw a much greater increase in their median weekly earnings, compared with young men and women of the same age with just high school.1 Young males with no postsecondary education fared particularly poorly during this time period: they saw their actual median weekly earnings fall almost 20%. In addition, according to the 2001 Census, university graduates aged 25 to 34 earned 36% more on average than similarly aged college graduates. Thus, with respect to the earning potential of youth, it is not only access to postsecondary education that is important but also the type of postsecondary institution to which they have access.
As university tuition fees have risen relatively quickly in recent years, there has been some concern that the cost of university studies may be prohibitive for youth who are academically qualified and wish to go to university but simply can’t afford it. One aspect of these costs is distance: youth who do not live within commuting distance of a university must leave home in order to attend. The cost of living away from home while attending university is not trivial. Some researchers estimate that the additional cost of moving away to attend university ($5,400 per year on average) actually surpasses the costs of tuition, other school fees, books and supplies (about $3,700 per year).2 Another study finds that the probability of youth attending university decreases with distance, even when other factors such as gender, family income, parental education and province are taken into account.3
In order to address the problem of distance, policy makers are faced with a choice: they can either assist students with the cost of living away from home by giving them loans and grants (bring the students to the school) or create new universities in areas where they did not previously exist (bring the school to the students).
A recent article by Marc Frenette looks at the second option in more detail.4 Using census data from 1981 to 2001, Frenette examines the impact of the creation of new universities in Prince George, Kamloops, Kelowna, Chilliwack and Nanaimo, British Columbia, in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador, and in Sydney, Nova Scotia. His research investigates the effect of their creation on university participation rates, college participation rates and earnings of youth in these areas. He compares participation rates within the community before and after the new university was established, with other communities that had a university over the entire time period, and with other communities that had never had a university. The results of this research are summarized here.
The few existing studies on the link between distance and education all find that the relationship is negative. A study done in a Canadian context—the late 1980s in Nova Scotia and British Columbia—found that distance to school negatively correlated with the probability of eventually attending university.5
Frenette’s research examined this issue at the national level, controlling for gender, family income, parental education and province.6 He found that as the distance between home and the nearest university increased, the probability that a young person would attend university shortly after high school decreased. Students who grew up within 40 kilometres of a university were 73% more likely to attend university than students who grew up more than 80 kilometres away and 45% more likely to attend than students who grew up from 40 to 80 kilometres from a university.
Source: Statistics Canada, Survey of Labour and Income Dynamics 1993-1999.
Predicted probability of university participation shortly after high school, by distance to nearest university
Frenette also found that students from lower-income families were most negatively affected by distance. This suggests that the additional costs associated with leaving home to attend university are particularly difficult to meet for youth in this income bracket. Moreover, in a related study, Frenette found that youth who had grown up far from a university but close to a college were less likely to go to university, but more likely to go to college.7 Thus, overall postsecondary participation rates in a given area may not be affected by the lack of a university.
Could it be, however, that youth who do not live close to a university differ in academic abilities from youth who do? One possible hypothesis is that the parents’ choice of where to live is somehow related to their own academic abilities (and possibly to those of their children). If this were the case, then opening a new university in these areas would not likely increase university participation.
It turns out that the gap in achievement between those youth who live within 40 kilometres of a university and those who do not is quite small. Youth living in close proximity to a university score approximately 2 percentage points higher than other students on standardized reading and math tests. The difference for standardized science tests is even smaller. This small gap in achievement is unlikely to explain the large gap in university participation between youth who live close to a university and youth who do not.
Before 1989, distance to a university was an issue outside the large metropolitan areas of Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia. At this time, all the universities in that province were located in the southern part of Vancouver Island or in the Lower Mainland. This left youth living in a large area of British Columbia without access to a local university. To address this gap, the Government of British Columbia announced that several colleges would be transformed into university colleges.
Previously, it had been possible for some students to pursue university transfer credits at local colleges, but in order to complete their degree, they had to move away from home. With the creation of these university colleges, it became possible for youth to pursue and complete their degree at their local college (now renamed a ‘university college’). These colleges became university colleges when they were given degree-granting status: Cariboo College in Kamloops (1989), Okanagan College in Kelowna (1989), Malaspina College in Nanaimo (1995) and Fraser Valley College in Chilliwack (1992). In addition, a completely new degree-granting institution, the University of Northern British Columbia, was created in 1994 in Prince George.
British Columbia was not the only province to increase its university capacity in regions not previously serviced by a university. In Sydney, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton College received degree-granting status to become a university college in 1982. Also, in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College started operating a satellite campus of Memorial University in 1992.
Canadian communities without universities saw their youth university participation rates rise from 18.7% in 1981, reach a high of 27.7% in 1996 and fall back to 25.7% by 2001. In contrast, communities with new degree-granting institutions showed just an increase in university participation8 over the same time period, with no subsequent decline. For example, in Prince George, the university participation rate among youth aged 20 to 24 rose from 18.5% in 1996 to 26.8% in 2001.
Chart 2 shows, as bars, university participation rates in each of the cities
mentioned, both before the impact of the new university was felt (the
first census year following its creation) and after enough time had passed
to assess its impact (the next census year). The university participation
rates for comparable census years in other communities with and without universities are shown as squares and triangles, respectively.
University participation rates of youth aged 20 to 24, before and after the creation of university colleges
1. Year of each university’s creation is shown in parentheses.
2. The years under the bars for each community indicate the census years providing data for before and after the impact of the university was felt on the community’s university participation rate.
3. The average university participation rates for the after impact census years are shown in the graph as squares in other communities with a university and as triangles in other communities without a university.
Source: Statistics Canada, Census of Population.
It is interesting to note that in the five communities in British Columbia, university transfer programs had already been well established at the existing colleges before these institutions were given degree-granting status. Thus, previous to the creation of the university colleges, youth in these areas could begin their university studies, but could not complete them in their home communities. As local colleges received degree-granting status, allowing young people to finish their education in their home community, the participation rates in Kamloops, Kelowna and Nanaimo rose to a level similar to that of Canadian communities that already had a university. In Prince George and Chilliwack, these rates moved up to par with Canadian communities that did not already have a university.
In contrast, in Sydney and Corner Brook in Atlantic Canada, participation rates prior to the creation of the new university were already at the same level as Canadian communities that already housed a university. After the creation of the new institutions, university participation rates in those two communities surpassed those observed in other Canadian communities that already had a university.
Overall, the creation of a university was associated with a 28% increase in university participation once factors such as student characteristics, city characteristics and period effects were taken into account. This was a greater increase in university participation than was observed in other parts of the country over the same time period.
The increases in university participation rates in these communities came at the expense of college participation. In all of these communities, college participation rates declined. On average, once student characteristics, city characteristics and period effects were accounted for, the opening of a new university was associated with a 19% decrease in college participation. This, coupled with the rise in university participation (28%), left the overall postsecondary participation rate very little affected in these areas: it rose by about 2%.
Did the creation of a new university affect all youth equally? Or more specifically, did these effects differ by gender, income or Aboriginal status?
College and university participation rates of men and women were similarly affected by the introduction of a new degree-granting institution. In contrast, youth from lower-income families experienced a much greater increase in university participation rates than did youth from higher income families. This finding supports the hypothesis that distance can act as a financial barrier to university access. Once factors such as student characteristics, city characteristics and period effects were taken into account, youth from families whose incomes were below $25,000 saw their university participation rate rise from 16% to 27% after the introduction of a new university. Conversely, participation rates for youth from families whose incomes were above $100,000 rose only from 41% to 48% after the introduction of a new university.
While lower-income youth experienced a greater rise in university participation rates, Aboriginal youth did not. In fact, once student characteristics, city characteristics and period effects were taken into account, the university participation rate rose only slightly among Aboriginal youth who grew up in cities in which a university opened—from 8.5% to 9.1%—following the creation of a local university. Non-Aboriginal youth, on the other hand, saw their university participation rate increase from 27% to 34% after the opening of a local university.
Having established that the introduction of a new university leads to an increase in university participation and a decrease in college participation among local youth, the next question would be what effect this switch between college and university had on the earnings of young adults in these regions. If university graduates earn more, on average, than college graduates, and if youth in these areas are choosing to go to university instead of college, then we might expect to see an increase in earnings of postsecondary graduates in this region.
There is a 9.5% increase in the earnings of female postsecondary graduates
aged 20 to 24 once factors such as years of work experience, city characteristics
and period effects are taken into account. However, there is no corresponding
increase in the earnings of male postsecondary graduates of the same age.
This would support the finding that it pays more for a young woman to go to
university than to college. Young men, in contrast, will not earn much more
if they choose to pursue university as opposed to a college or trade diploma,
at least in the short term.9 Whether this lack of return to a university degree
for young men would continue over a longer period of time, however, remains
to be examined.
In summary, the postsecondary choices that youth make are affected by the presence or absence of a local university. Specifically, if a university is created where there previously was none, some youth will choose to go to university rather than college. In the case of low-income youth, this effect is particularly marked. It should be noted, however, that these findings may be specific to the seven communities profiled here. It could be that there was pent-up demand for a university education in these particular communities but not elsewhere. Thus, opening a university in another region might not have the same effect.
That being said, there is some preliminary evidence from these seven communities that creating a university increases university participation rates among local youth. In other words, building a university will not necessarily attract out-of-town students from larger cities who would crowd out the local students attending that institution. This is important, in light of the fact that one in five youth in Canada does not live within commuting distance of a university.
René Morissette, Yuri Ostrovsky and Garnet
Picot. 2004. Relative Wage Patterns among the Highly Educated in a Knowledge-based Economy. Statistics
Canada Catalogue number 11F0019MIE2004232. From summary: Kathryn
McMullen. 2005. Earnings
trends in the knowledge-based economy.” Education Matters. Volume
2, number 1. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-004-XIE.
L. Barr-Telford, F. Cartwright, S. Prasil
and K. Shimmons. 2003. Access,
Persistence and Financing: First Results from the Postsecondary Education
Participation Survey (PEPS). Culture, Tourism and the Centre
for Education Statistics Research Papers. Statistics Canada Catalogue
M. Frenette. 2002. Too far to go on? Distance to school and university participation. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 11F0019MIE2002191. From summary: Kathryn McMullen. 2004. Distance as a postsecondary issue, Education Matters. Number 1. Statistics Canada Catalogue number 81-004-XIE.
M. Frenette. 2006. Do
Universities Benefit Local Youth? Evidence from University and College
Participation, and Graduate Earnings Following the Creation of a
New University. Analytical
Studies Research Paper Series, number 283. Statistics Canada Catalogue
L. Andres and E. D. Looker. 2001. “Rurality and capital: Educational expectations and attainments of rural, urban/rural and metropolitan youth.” The Canadian Journal of Higher Education. Vol. 31, no. 2. p. 1–45.
M. Frenette. 2004. Access to college and university: Does distance matter? Statistics Canada Catalogue number 11F0019MIE2003201.
It should be noted, however, that the location of study was not collected on censuses prior to 2006. Therefore, while the university participation rates of youth living in these areas can be examined, data on where they went to school are not available.
A. M. Ferrer and W. C. Riddell. 2002. “The role of credentials in the Canadian labour market.” Canadian Journal of Economics. Vol. 35, no. 4. p. 879-905.