Alberta’s post-secondary participation rate is dead last in Canada. A high school student here in our province is less likely to go on to university or college than their counterpart anywhere else in our country. As our economic situation improves and our population ages we know that we are on the precipice of a skilled labour shortage, one where we are going to need more post-secondary graduates than we are able to produce. In short, a low post-secondary participation rate is a direct threat to our economic future.

It is too simplistic to suggest that tuition alone determines a student’s path into post-secondary education. The study done by Ben Eisen and Jonathan Wensveen takes a cursory look at just that and comes to the conclusion that tuition cannot predict a province’s participation rate, therefore suggesting that there is little harm in jacking up the price of education. By ignoring the plethora of other factors which determine participation rates, Eisen and Wensveen are able to make tuition seem less significant then it is in reality. What they fail to recognize is the bigger picture of cost and other factors which affect access and what we need do to reduce these barriers to education.

Getting an education in Alberta is expensive, and the costs are not just limited to tuition. Going to university often involves leaving home and moving to a new community, adding thousands of dollars to the cost of study. Rent, food and transportation all need to be factored into the price. For many that means borrowing the money through a student loan, which adds further costs in the form of interest and monthly payments.

Many students, when faced with the enormously high cost of their education have to rely on financial aid to pay their way through their program. The availability of financial aid, primarily of up-front needs based grants, is a key factor in determining participation rates across Canada and cannot be ignored.

Tuition levels and financial aid are only a part of the equation which influences participation. They are, however, a very significant portion of that equation, and the ones that government has the most power over.

Our province needs to encourage more people to go into post-secondary education, and that extends beyond just universities, but includes options like apprenticeships, graduate degrees and diploma studies as well. The solutions are going to involve changes well beyond just tuition policy. We need to look at our abysmal high school drop out rate, the number of spaces available in our institution, the provision of financial aid, and a host of other factors when looking to increase access.

Alberta’s tuition rates are far from being rock-bottom. Indeed at a cost of $6,264 for tuition and fees for a full course load at the University of Calgary this year, we are anything but. The shock of seeing that price puts the idea of getting a degree seemingly out of reach for many in our society. The study admits that “higher tuition fees might still discourage participation by students from low-income families.” Increasing tuition cannot be a part of our answer to low participation rate, so what is?

It starts early, encouraging and fostering our children to reach their full potential. We have to do more in early intervention for those students who are struggling in K-12 to finish high school and to see post-secondary education as a real possibility. It involves better student financial aid to make sure that students have the means to finance their education without being saddled with massive student debt which makes it difficult to start a family, get a mortgage or start a business when students complete their studies. It also means making sure the sticker price of tuition is not so high as it discourages participation and rises at an amount that is predictable and affordable.

Simply put, we need to make it easier for Albertans to get an education, not harder. Lower tuition alone will not result in the dramatically improved participation rates which our province needs, but it would be a significant part of a more comprehensive solution.

This post is in response to a op-ed piece in the Calgary Herald on September 13, 2011.