Entering a (first) postsecondary education (PSE) program represents a critical transition in a person’s life, but it is just the beginning of a whole new set of dynamics that can take many different forms. Some students continue in their programs until graduation, proceeding at faster or slower rates. Others switch to another program at the same institution, at an institution of the same kind (college or university) or at a different level of study. Still others abandon their studies, some to return at a later date.
Those who persist in their initial programs directly through to graduation could be considered cases where the system has successfully helped students realize their PSE aspirations and then move into the labour market, go on to further schooling or pursue other life goals. In short, they could be considered student “success” stories as far as the PSE system is concerned.
Those who obtain a diploma/degree after moving across different programs, institutions or levels of study
– perhaps with a break in their studies along the way – may have taken, to some extent, a wasteful diversion on the path to their preferred postsecondary credential. This may result from an initially flawed program choice or a PSE system that has somehow not served these students as well as it could have.
However, such pathways could also represent the student’s acquisition of necessary learning about different programs and the careers they lead to, or they could reflect developments in the student’s personal life apart from his or her schooling, or they may result from an individual’s change of plans. In at least some of these cases, the postsecondary system and the postsecondary institutions with which the individual was involved may have performed as well as could be expected despite the time required and the circuitous pathway that the student took to complete the program. Finally, although individuals who fail to complete their postsecondary studies may be regarded as being part of a system that is not working as it should, such pathways may again represent necessary learning experiences or be related to personal factors that have little to do with the PSE system. In fact, the system may have performed as well as could be expected, including providing an initial opportunity for the individual to pursue or explore their PSE ambitions.
Underlying many of these dynamics are policy issues relating to ways in which these pathways and outcomes could be improved. Could better information provided in more effective ways help students make more informed and appropriate program choices at an earlier point during their studies? In the case of students who struggle in their PSE studies, could certain interventions help these individuals or targeted groups of students overcome those challenges and complete their programs in a more timely fashion? Are there means of reducing the need for some students to take breaks from their studies or are such pauses a necessary part of the PSE experience for at least some individuals? Answering such questions, and developing the appropriate policy response, could potentially result in more satisfied students, reduced costs for the PSE system and higher graduation rates. Before addressing these issues, however, more information on PSE pathways is needed, including program retention, drop-out and completion rates and student transfers within, between and across programs, institutions and levels of study.
The general objective of this report is to provide new and unique empirical evidence concerning the patterns of “persistence” (or what is sometimes alternatively referred to as “retention,” especially when viewed from the perspective of individual institutions), as well as educational pathways more generally, of PSE students in Ontario. We present an analysis of the frequency of various trajectories and graduation rates and use both descriptive statistics and econometric modelling to show how pathways and outcomes vary by students’ individual characteristics, family background and educational outcomes at the high school and PSE levels.1 Throughout, the focus is on Ontario, but comparisons are made with the rest of Canada.