The main objective of this report is to learn about the state of knowledge regarding the role of financial literacy as a complex barrier to postsecondary attendance. To achieve this goal, the report contains a literature review of existing studies in the area, as well as an environmental scan of existing programs and initiatives.
When possible, the focus of the report is on low-income high school students in the context of making decisions regarding postsecondary education. In this ideal setting, financial literacy will be defined as knowledge of all the costs, benefits, and available aid associated with postsecondary education. In reality, there are few studies and existing programs that fit this ideal profile. However, we have identified several studies that share these characteristics to a large extent. Specifically, we describe and discuss 21 related studies and 34 related programs. Although most studies and programs are Canadian, we also broaden the scope somewhat to include countries with similar postsecondary systems as Canada (e.g. the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand).
Our literature review focuses on Canadian and American evidence, and has uncovered several important findings. First, the cost of a postsecondary education is vastly overestimated by the public at large and by low-income youth in particular. In contrast, the economic benefits to attending university are generally underestimated (equally for low- and high-income households). Whether knowing about the costs and benefits matters for pursuing a postsecondary education is less clear given the lack of convincing evidence in this area.
While awareness of student financial aid is not necessarily an issue, it appears that knowledge of aid is limited. This may be related to the complexity of student financial aid, which is not only costly, but may also represent a barrier to some students.
A non-negligible portion of students are loan averse, which means that they will avoid grant opportunities when they are coupled with an optional student loan. This is the case even though the loans can be refused or invested at zero repayable interest.
Research also demonstrates that helping students complete their financial aid and postsecondary application forms has a large impact on application and admission rates. In contrast, offering information to students (without application assistance) is generally not sufficient to affect behaviour.
Finally, once in university, the majority of undergraduates follow a budget and regularly pay off their credit card balance each month. This suggests a certain degree of awareness and control regarding their finances, which may help them repay their loans on time and avoid defaulting.