What Colleges and Universities Can Do

By Drummond, Don | Policy Options, February 2013 | Go to article overview

What Colleges and Universities Can Do


Drummond, Don, Policy Options


Getting more Aboriginal people into and through college and university offers hope for a better future.

C'est en incitant les Autochtones à faire des études collégiales et universitaires qu'on multipliera leurs chances de connaÎtre un meilleur avenir.

One of the most effective ways to address the difficult economic and social conditions facing Canada's Aboriginal people is to ensure that more of them are able to get a good education. The most pressing need is at the elementary and secondary school levels, where less than half of young Aboriginal people graduate from grade 12, compared with about 80 percent for the non-Aboriginal population. But with almost three-quarters of the economy's new jobs requiring some form of post-secondary education, Canada's colleges and universities can play a critical role in improving economic prospects for Aboriginal people.

The Assembly of First Nations quotes the Prime Minister as having said at the January 11, 2013, meeting, "At some point we will need to discuss post-secondary education as well." That conversation should definitely take place. And the provinces should be involved, since post-secondary education is in their jurisdiction.

Fortunately, not all colleges and universities are waiting for a national or even a provincial strategy. But much more needs to be done. Universities must account for the distinct character of Aboriginal students, with measures such as acknowledging the special requirements of people who often beginning their post-secondary studies at an older age and mitigating the financial and social stresses that can accompany their pursuit of a university degree.

The key is to ensure that Aboriginal students can study under conditions that foster a higher rate of graduation from post-secondary institutions. We cannot simply measure success by how many Aboriginal students are enrolled in colleges and universities. We must focus on how many emerge as graduates, richer for the experience and able to put their education to use. Every failure, by contrast, reinforces the uneasy sense among many Aboriginal people that the academic mountain is too high to climb and the odds set too high against them.

According to the evidence there is little doubt there is a link between better education and both improved personal health and higher lifetime earnings. Aboriginal men with only a high school diploma can expect to earn $300,000 less over their working years compared with those who complete a program at a non-university post-secondary institution. The amount of lost lifetime income rises to $400,000 when the first group is compared with those who complete university. But the biggest financial returns from university education accrue to Aboriginal women, where the lifetime earnings of those who have a university degree can be $600,000 greater over a lifetime than the earnings of women with just a high school diploma. Even some post-secondary schooling makes a difference: $350,000 more in lifetime earnings for those who complete community and technical college programs.

With many Canadian employers increasingly looking for skilled, trained workers, a better-educated Aboriginal population offers a route to improved living standards for individuals, and broader economic development for Aboriginal communities. The challenge for colleges and universities is to find ways to improve their success rate in attracting and graduating Aboriginal students with the relevant knowledge and skills.

A conference at Queen's University in June 2011 brought Aboriginal post-secondary students together with academic and native leaders to analyze what works and what more is needed to achieve these aims. They were operating with the awareness that by 2017, the number of young Aboriginal adults aged 20 to 29 was expected to increase 40 percent - a growth rate five times that in the non-Aboriginal population. Ensuring that this generation has better post-secondary educational opportunities will go a long way in dictating the economic fate of their communities.

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