In an article in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Jeffrey Simpson reports on a study on the factors that influence university attendance. University of Ottawa professor Ross Finnie and his co-author Richard Mueller, using Statistics Canada data, found that family income is less of a predictor of university attendance than the parents’ education levels, the number of books in the house, internet access, family dinner conversations, the presence of both parents in the household, and cultural background. Simpson points out that this causes a problem for governments who would like to increase university attendance: they have little control over what he calls “cultural” factors.

This is an interesting conundrum. As planning graduate students, we are often encouraged to think about the policy implications of our research. It must be practical in some way. While the first impulse is to ask how our research will impact policy development, a deeper examination of knowledge into action (as our friend John Friedmann would say) is more appropriate.

In an earlier post, I reported on our PhD panel at SCARP’s recent symposium on how research moves from academia into practice. The different methods we discussed were:

  • Giving policy makers empirical evidence upon which to base policy and programs
  • Publishing in a variety of non-academic venues including professional and trade conference presentations
  • Bringing different actors into dialogue through participatory planning exercises
  • Learning from planning practices in other countries
  • Using case studies as examples of planning practice in the teaching process
  • Re-examining traditional planning models to lead to paradigm shift

Using this broader framework to redefine the practical nature of our research, we can see the value of Finnie and Mueller’s work. While their study’s findings doesn’t give policy makers empirical evidence, they serve as a useful reminder that family income alone does not determine university attendance. In an era of rapidly rising tuition and concerns over equitable university access for all potential students, this is incredibly valuable information. We are in the habit of comparing ourselves to the US, where income can and does play a major role even at the elementary school level. American parents often choose their housing based on the locations of the best school districts.

Simpson points out that immigrants, especially from Asia, are much more likely to attend university than other ethnic groups; as a cultural factor, this is seen as impossible to adapt to policy. As part of this large ethnic category (South Asian) I can confirm that Asian parents put more of a priority on university attendance. Education is highly valued, even above marriage, for themselves and their children; they will even encourage married children to live away from their spouse to complete a degree, something that would never be encouraged in other ethnic groups. Many of these parents come from countries where they have seen the value of a Bachelor’s or Masters degree, and want their children to do as well as, or better than, they did in their own careers. While we can’t replace everyone’s parents with academically-oriented Asians, perhaps it’s time to gain some insight from Asian parents on how their children become such high achievers. If they help their children with homework more than other ethnic groups, perhaps schools could encourage study groups led by parents or encourage more dialogue between parents of different ethnic groups. If they use specific techniques to help encourage their kids or reward them for work done, perhaps other parents could learn these techniques and apply them. We are encouraged to learn planning practices from other countries; why not learn educational techniques?

Owning a dictionary, having many books in the home, internet access, and family dinnertime conversation were all found to predict university attendance. While the government certainly can’t mandate these practices (as Simpson jokes) schools could encourage parents to buy second-hand books, have fund-raiser book sales, or create web lounges for students to use after school with their parents. Community groups could have monthly dinner clubs for school-aged children and their parents. Instead of a play date for their kids, parents could host a kids book club.

The presence of two parents in the home, an increasingly rare occurrence these days, was also found to encourage university attendance. The two-parent household is implicated in all sorts of positive benefits, yet we do not know what specifically leads to all these benefits. If it is the fact that single parents often work longer hours and have less time to spend helping their children with homework, we can again see some program opportunities for children living in single-parent households: perhaps an after-school study group at a community center or help using the internet for class assignments.

In short, despite Simpson’s joke that governments could give tax incentives for dinner conversation or buying a dictionary (I’m sure Stephen Harper would disapprove), there are many ways in which this research could lead to paradigm shift in our perceptions of university preparation and equitable access to universities. Now that family income has been revealed as a less important factor than what Simpson calls “cultural” factors, perhaps it will free researchers to delve further into the factors that have the most impact on university attendance.

This example serves as a reminder that our research as planners need not have immediate policy relevance. It can move into planning practice in any number of ways, and can help change the way people think about important social issues. Finally, it illustrates our point that publishing in non-academic venues such as the Globe and Mail can move research into the public imagination.

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