Jacquie Gahagan, Mount Saint Vincent University; Dale Kirby, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Krista C Ritchie, Mount Saint Vincent University, and Kristyn Anderson, Dalhousie University
Post-secondary education systems tend to reproduce existing social inequalities and inequities. This is in part because post-secondary success is strongly connected with parents’ educational attainment, social support and other social determinants of health.
As post-secondary education has become more commercialized, debates about enrolment and engagement frequently centre on appropriate levels of student financial aid and debt, without considering what people need to succeed holistically.
We propose provincial governments, in collaboration with post-secondary institutions, should direct funding toward improved affordability and supports for those who face both greater financial and systemic challenges in accessing post-secondary education.
Some governments focus on student and family income levels when designing and implementing broadly targeted free tuition programs. Other approaches target tuition assistance toward specific groups such as former youth in care.
Higher earnings, health outcomes
While education has indisputable intrinsic value, educational attainment is perhaps the single most important determinant of a person’s economic success. It is well-established that individuals with higher levels of education tend to have higher earnings.
In addition to economic benefits, there is a positive correlation between education and health outcomes. Health researchers are interested in how modifiable determinants of health can include education level and socio-economic status. Youth in care may not have the ability to change their family circumstances, but they should have the opportunity to augment their education level.
Education has also been positively correlated with civic participation, such as voting, charitable giving and volunteerism, appreciation of diversity, and reduced crime rates.
In Canada, about 85,000 youth are in care, and most do not complete high school or attend post-secondary institutions.
Integrated interventions to ensure that those in care across Canada are afforded the same access to education as those without experience in the child welfare system are long overdue.
According to a Child Welfare League of Canada 2021 report, “Equitable Standards for Transitions to Adulthood for Youth in Care,” governments at all levels, as well as service providers, should be held to the same set of standards to ensure the transition to adulthood for youth in care are upheld regardless of where youth live.
Tuition waiver programs
Early childhood experiences of instability, discrimination and violence can have lasting impacts that extend into adulthood.
To address barriers to post-secondary education among former youth in care, tuition waiver programs must acknowledge and accommodate for the impact of complexity and trauma in the lives of this population.
The limited data available on the numbers of youth aging out of care each year suggest that the majority face a variety of challenges, including homelessness and barriers to education due, in part, to the lack of standardized supports and nationally legislated entitlements for youth leaving care.
Existing data clearly indicate the link between not having a post-secondary education and poorer health outcomes across the life course. Yet having poor health in the first place can impact the decision to continue with formal education: when youth are aging out of care, experiencing poor health can lead them to determine that post-secondary study isn’t a feasible option.
Tuition waiver programs waive the cost of post-secondary education and, in some instances, provide additional wrap-around supports such as counselling, books, food and so on.
To understand how these interventions support former youth in care, cross-institutional evidence-based practices are needed. There is no national standard on what needs to be included in tuition waiver programs. The lack of standards and associated data means that we cannot compare across programs to determine what fosters the best possible outcomes for recipients.
In a recent study in the four Atlantic provinces, qualitative data from twenty-two in-depth interviews with former youth in care described barriers and challenges to attending post-secondary education once a tuition waiver was received.
These include the need for programs to be flexible to accommodate a variety of competing demands, including financial, health, caregiving, work responsibilities and limited options in rural communities.
Data collection and evaluation approaches pertaining to tuition waivers and youth in care must account for these issues.
Holistic programs needed
Tuition waiver program staff, recipients, and community organizations must collaboratively develop programs that support the whole person.
By considering how programs affect health, we can create programs that are accessible and supportive.
These programs can help build identity, financial security, trusting relationships, community and improved well-being. Getting them right and removing barriers matters.
Sue McWilliam, who works as the trauma-informed care research and evaluation lead with IWK Health in Halifax, co-authored this story.
Jacquie Gahagan, Full Professor and Associate Vice-President, Research, Mount Saint Vincent University; Dale Kirby, Professor, Faculty of Education, Memorial University of Newfoundland; Krista C Ritchie, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, Mount Saint Vincent University, and Kristyn Anderson, PhD candidate, Health, Dalhousie University