Moving Through, Moving On: Persistence in Postsecondary Education in Atlantic Canada, Evidence from the PSIS

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Ross Finnie, University of Ottawa
Theresa Qiu, Statistics Canada

Executive summary

This report provides new and unique empirical evidence on Postsecondary Education (PSE) pathways in Atlantic Canada based on the Postsecondary Student Information System ("PSIS") dataset. The PSIS has been developed at Statistics Canada using administrative files on students provided to them in a standard format by individual (public) post-secondary institutions. Atlantic Canada is especially well positioned to take advantage of the PSIS due to their almost universal participation in the PSIS project since 2001 through 2004, the period covered by this analysis.

For this project, a given individual's records have been linked in each reporting year (where the person has multiple programs) and over time (when the person appears in the data more than one year), thus allowing us to identify – and track – students' PSE pathways. Most importantly, and one of the particular (and unique) strengths of the PSIS, is that this broad coverage and longitudinal linking allow us to track students as they move across institutions. This tracking includes both those who continue in their studies from one year to the next while making such a change in institution (i.e. "switchers"), as well as those who drop out and then come back ("returners"). We thus obtain a much more complete and accurate view of persistence patterns, and are able to correct the more limited perspectives available to date, based mostly on the data of given institutions (i.e., where students movements across institutions are not observed).

While the PSIS includes records for students of all types and characteristics, our focus is on those who start new programs over the period in question, and then seeing who, in each year of their studies, i) graduates, ii) continues in the same program (defined as not having graduated but still being enrolled at the same institution), iii) switches programs (i.e., continues in PSE but at another institution, possibly at a different level or even in a different province), or iv) leaves PSE without graduating.

We also identify the number of leavers who return to PSE after leaving, again whether at the original institution or at another, at the same or different level, in the first province or another.

Finally, the analysis also includes a tracking of those observed to graduate from a program over this period to see how many continue in their studies, either directly or after taking a short break – and if so, where they do so (level of studies, province, etc.)

The study covers PSE students in public institutions at all levels of study in Atlantic Canada: college, bachelor's, master's, Ph.D., and first professional degrees. The emphasis here, however, is on college and bachelor's students for reasons related both to sample sizes, and the nature of the profiles and presumed related policy concerns.

The paper also attempts to generally identify the strengths and limitations of the PSIS, as well as point the way to further avenues of investigation.

Stemming from the unique attributes of the PSIS data, the study is the first of its type for the region. It is, however, in most respects also unique in Canada, and even at the international level. The results reported here might therefore be of interest to academics, institution administrators, postsecondary policy makers, and others with an interest in these dynamics, including even students themselves, not only in Atlantic Canada, but also across Canada, and possibly even in other countries.

Our analysis is conducted using a number of different samples, which represent different conditions being placed on the students whose dynamics we study. Our preferred samples impose a tighter set of rules in order to be more sure that we are including students at the start of their programs. Further restrictions allow us to focus on those who age 17 to 20 at the start of their studies (and therefore even more likely to be just starting their PSE careers), but we report results for the broader samples we define as well.

Our major findings regarding the basic persistence rates include the following:

  • Starting at the university level, and focussing on our narrowest samples (first program, age 17 to 20 when they started), we find that the first year "dropout rate" from the point of view of individual institutions (i.e., including "switchers" as well as true "leavers") is 20.2 percent, which compares closely to the bits of existing evidence on this dynamic.

  • But some of these "leavers" are in fact switchers: 5.1 percent in absolute terms, or 25.2 percent in relative terms when compared to all those who leave a given institution (i.e., as compared to the switcher and leaver totals noted above). We thus see that ignoring moves to other institutions leads to substantial bias in the estimates of those who actually leave PSE. "True" leaving rates (i.e., from PSE entirely) are left at 15.1 percent.

  • Switching and leaving rates are considerably lower in the second year as compared to the first, as expected, but remain substantial. For example, and still using the age 17 to 20 sample, leaving rates decline from 15.1 percent to 11.7 percent, while switching rates go from 5.1 percent to 4.2 percent.

  • Expanding the list of programs to which university students are considered "switchers" (rather than leavers) to include non-PSE programs at PSE institutions (e.g., short courses, language training, and so on) reduces the leaving rate somewhat further, to 13.8 percent, and increases the continuing rate and switching rates commensurately.

  • From this perspective, the "drop out rate" in the first year goes from 20.2 percent when both leavers and switchers are added together (i.e., "the institution's perspective") and a narrower range of programs are included for switchers, to 13.8 percent when only true leavers are considered and switchers include students in non-PSE programs at PSE institutions. This represents a reduction in the estimated drop-out rate of 6.4 percentage points in absolute terms, or 32 percent in relative terms. The PSIS data thus give a substantially different perspective of the number of PSE leavers relative to what would be estimated with institution-specific data.

  • Leaving rates are considerably higher among college students than bachelor's students: 22.6 percent (college) versus 15.1 percent (bachelor's) in the first year. Also, switching is almost negligible for college students, whereas the numbers are substantial for bachelor's students.

  • Cumulative transition rates which essentially add up the record for the different years as a student progresses through their program (while taking account of the "censored" nature of the data over time) are also shown.

  • Not surprisingly, leaving rates are much lower among students in master's, first professional degree and Ph.D., programs: in the first year (and based on somewhat different sample restrictions as appropriate) they are 9.5, 5.5 and 6.3 percent at the three levels, respectively. Switching is almost non-existent.

  • Men leave at considerably higher rates than woman at the university level (a cumulative difference of 28.4 percent versus 21.9 by the end of year 2), whereas women's switching rates are, conversely, a bit higher than men's. The patterns by sex are, however, more mixed at the college level: their cumulative leaving rates by the end of year 2 are almost identical (33.1 and 33.6 percent respectively).

  • Leaving rates rise substantially with age for bachelor's students, but switching rates decline with age. For college students, leaving rates are slightly lower for older students (switching rates remain negligible).

  • By province, the differences are perhaps surprisingly small given the varying nature of the different PSE systems in terms of the number of institutions in each province, their locations, tuition fee structures, and more. Leaving rates among university students in Newfoundland and Labrador, Prince Edward Island, and New Brunswick are clustered within a few points of each other, while Nova Scotia has somewhat lower rates. Switching rates are very similar across all four provinces. At the college level, first year transition rates are also similar across jurisdictions, except for Prince Edward Island, whose rates are lower.

Looking at where switchers go, we find the following:

  • Among bachelor's students (and focusing still on the 17 to 20 age group – patterns are roughly the same for the broader sample), switching rates are 5.1 in the first year (and slightly lower in the second). Of these, two-thirds stay at the same level of studies in their new programs, and among this group, a somewhat greater share remain in the same province as compared to the number who leave (1.9 percent versus 1.5 percent in actual percentages).

  • Of the remaining one-third of first-year switchers who change their level of studies from university to college, most stay in their original province (1.4 percent), while the remainder (just .3 percent overall) change both level of study and the province in which they pursue those studies.

  • Overall, then, just 1.8 percent of all first year bachelor's students move to study in a different (Atlantic) province at either the same level of study or at the college level by the beginning of their second year. In short, inter-provincial mobility among bachelor's students in Atlantic Canada appears to be quite low.

  • As previously mentioned, there are not many switchers at the college level at all: for example, just 1.3 percent and .8 percent in the first two years among the age 17 to 20 group.

How many return to PSE after leaving? Our results indicate the following:

  • In the first year, 25.0 percent of all bachelor's leavers (still focusing on the age 17 to 20 sample) return to PSE. Overall leaving rates are, therefore, substantially overstated when this group of "leaver-returners" is not taken into account. Otherwise put, "permanent" leavers are considerably fewer in number than the number of "temporary leavers" would indicate. – the well-known, but little quantified, "stop-out" phenomenon.

  • Of those who return, about half (11.9 percent of the 25.0 percent total) go back to the same institution (and same level – i.e., they stay at university). Another 5.8 percent stay at the same level (i.e., university) but change institution, these about evenly split between those who stay in-province (2.8 percent) and those who move to another province within Atlantic Canada (3.0 percent). A final 7.4 percent change their level of study (i.e., they switch to college), with most of these (5.7 percent) staying in-province, the remaining 1.7 percent changing both level and province.

  • Among college leavers, a much smaller proportion of leavers subsequently return to their studies: 11.5 percent (age 17 to 20) and 10.4 (all ages) percent in the first year we observe here. Of these, most return to the same institution (and level), 8.5 and 8.4 percent, respectively. Of the others, the greatest number change level (i.e., switch to university – 2.0 and 1.4 percent), almost all in the same province. Another small group goes to a different institution at the same level, almost all in another province (.9 and .6 percent).

Our study also looks at how many students observed to graduate over the period in question continue in their studies. We find the following:

  • The rates of continuing in PSE are relatively high, even though new programs taken out of the province are not counted due to the restriction of the PSIS file used here to the Atlantic region. By three years after graduating, 36.5 percent of bachelor's students had enrolled in another PSE program, while 30.3 percent of college graduates had done so. The great majority of these (at both levels) enrolled in their new programs in the first year following graduation; "gap years" do not appear to be particularly common at the PSE level – although it is certainly a path some follow.

  • Of those bachelor's graduates who go on, however, 34.8 percent do so in non-regular PSE programs, which include language courses, other specific skill development courses, and other such things. In short, a substantial number of bachelor's graduates appear to return to their studies to top up their skills or otherwise pursue their studies outside a regular PSE program. Just 4.0 start of these bachelor's graduates start a new (regular) PSE program at the college level, which seems like a surprisingly low number given all the attention paid to this path in the popular press.

  • Among college graduates, 39.5 percent of the re-enrolled are in new regular PSE college programs, 20.3 percent are at the bachelor's level, another 17.8 percent are in "below PSE" programs and 22.1 percent are in non-regular programs at PSE institutions. These are interesting and potentially important pathways that probably merit further analysis.

With these results in hand, the paper reports on a number of checks of these findings that were carried out, including comparing the results to those generated with the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS), which is another Statistics Canada database that is also well suited to the study of persistence in PSE (albeit in a different way given its national coverage and survey underpinnings). Those checks were generally reassuring regarding the quality of the PSIS data (and the structure of the analysis).

Finally, the report also points to a number of possible directions for future work. One of these relates to the possibility of i) making further checks, and ii) extending the analysis based on linkages of the PSIS with two other Statistics Canada databases. One of these is the YITS, which would allow a researcher to track individuals simultaneously in the two files, thus precisely identifying any differences in the PSE information that are observed.

The other is the Longitudinal Administrative Database, based on individuals' tax files. A LAD-PSIS linkage would again allow for further checks of the PSIS, and also permit a student's family background information (family type, income, etc.) to be added to the analysis, as well as allow individuals to be followed after leaving PSE.

Another suggested general line of research is to use econometric modelling methods to analyse the persistence patterns identified here.

Many other possible lines of enquiry could surely be identified based on the unique attributes of the PSIS, these topics including not only those that continue in the persistence topic, but also others related to other PSE issues. It is hoped that this paper has provided a useful first step which has generated some interesting and useful new evidence on persistence in PSE in Atlantic Canada, has offered a helpful assessment of the main strengths and limitations of the PSIS data, and has pointed the way to new work that could be undertaken.