Education If You're A New Canadian, 'You Go To University'

January 2010

Patricia Jura's journey to university was long and complicated, but her destination was never in doubt. Born in Zimbabwe, Ms. Jura arrived in Canada at age 11, living in Toronto's Rexdale neighbourhood while her parents gained Canadian training, then moving to Steinbach, Man., where her mother, a chemist, got a job.

Now in her second year at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus, Ms. Jura, 18, says higher education was always the goal. “In my family you go to university,” she explained. “I guess it was a choice, but it didn't feel like that.”

Ms. Jura's story is a common one. First- and second-generation Canadians are arriving on Canadian university campuses at a rate that far exceeds that of non-immigrant children. It's a trend that offers some important clues to the importance of social factors in decisions about education.

Getting more young Canadians to go to university may be as much about making it a goal early in life and supporting them to get there as it is about removing barriers such as cost or even marks, researchers say.

“They just go,” said Ross Finnie, a University of Ottawa economics professor who has crunched the numbers. “There is something going on here that goes beyond all we can measure.

“It may be about the desire to go and getting that desire in a person early enough so that they are prepared to go.” For anyone who has visited a campus in recent years, the growing presence of new Canadians will come as no surprise. Canada is becoming increasingly diverse and nowhere is that diversity more evident than in the youngest members of the population, a rising number of whom are drawn to higher education. Still, even researchers such as Prof. Finnie, who have studied trends in enrolment and access to postsecondary education for some time, say new figures reveal some unexpected trends.

Researchers have long known, for example, that there are several factors that influence a young person's decision about higher education. How far their parents went in school, family income, where they live and academic achievement are key. But even when all these factors are taken into account, new research, based on numbers collected by Statistics Canada over several years, shows young people who came to Canada as children or are the offspring of immigrants are still far more likely than other Canadians to enroll in university.

This gap is even greater when students are divided by country of origin. A study, conducted by Prof. Finnie and Richard Mueller from the University of Lethbridge, shows that while roughly 38 per cent of non-immigrant Canadians go to university, those who came as children or have parents who came from China, Africa or other Asian countries such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka have participation rates that in some cases approach 90 per cent. The study is based on numbers from Statscan's Youth in Transition project, which has been tracking a group of young Canadians since 2000.

“These numbers point to groups in our society who absolutely have no problem in attending university,” Prof. Finnie said. “They also point to the importance of background factors such as family and cultural factors in determining who goes and who doesn't.”

Only one group of immigrants, those from the Americas, excluding the United States, go to university at lower rates that all other Canadians.

All this is not news to Tom Nowers, dean of student affairs for more than a decade at U of T's Scarborough campus. He's all too familiar with the family and cultural ties that exist for many of the students on his campus who are first- or second-generation Canadians. “They have very strong family bonds,” he said. “It keeps them on track.”

He also has seen the downside. “Some struggle to navigate their own way, others go to extraordinary lengths to live up to expectations,” he said.

Beyond family, Mr. Nowers also sees students from various backgrounds supporting each other and forming communities and clubs on campus. That network, he believes, helps students deal with pressures to achieve.

For Ms. Jura, who once dreamed of a singing career, going to university was something she did for her parents, but now feels was the right choice. She'd like to go into pharmacy and perhaps later get a business degree.

“Mymom said, ‘Do whatever what you want, just make sure you bring a degree home,' ” she remembers. “I came for my mom; I'm here now for me.”