The Pursuit of Postsecondary Education: A Comparison of First Nations, African, Asian, and European Canadian Youth

By Thiessen, Victor | Canadian Review of Sociology, February 2009 | Go to article overview

The Pursuit of Postsecondary Education: A Comparison of First Nations, African, Asian, and European Canadian Youth


Thiessen, Victor, Canadian Review of Sociology


AS THE REVIEW OF EMPIRICAL STUDIES will show, and the subsequent analyses will substantiate, Canadian young people of various cultural identities differ substantially in their educational aspirations, academic effort, and academic performance. They also come from homes that differ considerably in socio-economic status (SES) and cultural features, with their associated advantages and disadvantages. This paper explores the processes that link these factors to subsequent educational pathways among Canada's ethnic/racial population groups, both native-born and immigrants. Three main questions are addressed: First, to what extent can population group differences in educational pathways be attributed to socio-economic factors? Second, what is the role of cultural differences in social/familial supports, aspirations, academic performance, and effort? Third, are the underlying dynamics that propel educational pathways similar for these population groups?

Explanations for the immigrant and visible minority disparities in educational outcomes differ in their focus on cultural versus structural factors (Kao and Thompson 2003). Cultural explanations emphasize achievement motivation, aspirations, and effort. The cultural explanation is typically employed to account for the superior outcomes of Asians and immigrants, but is eschewed as an explanation for inferior outcomes of North American Africans and aboriginals (Blair and Qian 1998; Chow 2000; Schmid 2001). For these groups, structural factors are seen as paramount, particularly parental SES and the advantages and disadvantages that accrue to them (Davies and Guppy 2006:120; Rumbaut 2005). While political sensitivities might well warrant these distinctive emphases, they nevertheless need to be empirically assessed. This paper examines simultaneously the role of both structural and cultural factors on the educational pathways of each of the population groups rather than assuming that structural factors are more important for explaining inferior outcomes and cultural factors for accounting for superior outcomes.

Prior Canadian research has established that the educational attainment of First Nations youth is low (Aman and Ungerleider 2008; Aydemir, Chen, and Corak 2008; Finnie, Lascelles, and Sweetman 2005; Krahn and Hudson 2006), especially among those living on reserves (Brunnen 2003; Mendelson 2006). Although the First Nation high school dropout rate has declined over the past two decades, the gap in educational attainment between First Nations and nonaboriginals has actually increased (Clement 2008; Hull 2005; Siggner and Costa 2005; Tait 1999). Further, although First Nation students are also especially unlikely to participate in postsecondary education (PSE), the immediate reason probably is their low academic performance (Finnie et al. 2005). Research on achievement tests corroborates this interpretation, because First Nation students consistently score substantially lower than other students on various standardized achievement tests (Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, and Statistics Canada 2005; Ma and Klinger 2000; Vandenberghe and Gierl 2001). Similar results are found in the United States, where aboriginals are least likely to be in an academic track in high school or to have obtained a university degree, and most likely to have dropped out of high school (Kao and Thompson 2003; Rumberger and Thomas 2000).

Because of data limitations, Canadian research often treats visible minorities as a single population group. As a group, they are modestly more likely than others to participate in PSE--a difference that is stronger with respect to enrollment in a university program (Krahn and Hudson 2006; Lambert et al. 2004; Tomkowicz and Bushnik 2003). This difference in PSE participation is foreshadowed by remarkably higher educational aspirations of visible minorities, especially immigrant visible minorities (Krahn and Taylor 2005). The few studies that differentiate among visible minority groups of different cultural identities find substantial heterogeneity between the groups in their academic performance and educational attainment, with particularly solid outcomes among Asian Canadians, but with African Canadians performing below European Canadians (Crysdale, King, and Mandell 1999; Finnie et al. …

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