Is education still the great leveller?

Does post-secondary education affect Canadians’ economic well being?  Is social class a factor in higher education? While class may be less pronounced here than in other developed countries, such as the United States or the United Kingdom, most Canadians would be surprised with the distinctions between socioeconomic levels. While money is an important factor, be it earned or inherited, socioeconomic levels are determined by education, occupational prestige, and power. Here the focus is on post-secondary education, and how it affects Canadians’ economic well being, because I believe social mobility, energized by higher education, to be the antidote to distinctions of class.

Education is thought to be the great leveller.  In Canada it is possible, through social mobility, to move between the upper, middle, and working classes. The movement can be up or down, and movement can occur within a lifetime or between generations. The ethic of valuing education is key, and while many parents will espouse the value of education, Veenstra argues that modeling this value instills the greatest mobility.  This is one of the reasons why Canadians are in disbelief when inequality is pointed out to them. Canadians  believe that education guarantees the equality of opportunity which allows them to become financially successful, but there is less social mobility than Canadians may realize.  This lack of awareness stems primarily from Canadians tending to interact with others from their same class, thereby, removing themselves from exposure to what Macionis & Gerber call the “true dimensions of inequality”. ( p.2)

There are many factors that impact Canadians’ educational expectations. Macionis & Gerber explain that Canadians from above average family incomes are generally healthier as both children and adults: they have better access to health care; they live longer; they are encouraged to be more creative; they have flexible spousal relationships regarding roles – not the rigid role segregation associated with the working class; they engage in relationships that tend to be more egalitarian; and finally in those relationships they enjoy more emotional intimacy. All of these factors contribute to an increased likelihood that children and young adults from these families will be encouraged to pursue post-secondary education. There is more money for post-secondary studies; there is flexibility in thinking about roles in society and the possibility of economic security through education; and most importantly, parents have modelled being educated and being economically stable.

Conversely, post-secondary education is becoming economically unattainable for students from economically less advantaged homes, who must increasingly rely on parents and family as well as student loans to achieve their educational goals.  For example, the CAUT Almanac of Post-Secondary Education 2012-2013 notes that, “the cost of undergraduate tuition has grown markedly over the past twenty years, from an average of $1,706 in 1991–1992 to $5,366 in 2011–2012, an increase of over 200%. Over the same period, the cost of living increased by only 41%.

Tuition costs grew the fastest in Ontario (+265% in 2011–2012) and the slowest at Memorial University in Newfoundland (+72%).  At $6,640, Ontario also has the highest average tuition in the country. In Québec, tuition grew almost as slowly (+92%) as in Newfoundland over 1991–1992 to 2011–2012, and the average tuition ($2,519 in 2011–2012) remains the lowest in the country” (p. 38). Despite the best intentions of parents and youth alike, post-secondary education is becoming economically less attainable.

It is becoming increasingly elitist as it is primarily the upper middle class and the wealthy who will be best able to assist their children with post-secondary education. Less fortunate parents, who value their children’s education, will have to plan for decades so that there will be sufficient savings to pay for post-secondary education. These students may have to live at home in order to afford post-secondary studies. Currently, 40.7% of  single youth aged 20 to 27 years of age still live with their parents. With a combination of student loans and the possibility of living with family rent free, it is possible for many to secure a post-secondary education.

Nevertheless, attendance at post-secondary institutions is now a greater challenge for economically less advantaged Canadians. This is particularly true where parents have not attended post-secondary studies, and believe that youth should “get out and get a job” if they are old enough to work. Ultimately, there are two important variables at play in a youth’s decision to seek post-secondary education:  what has been modelled, which is influenced by parents expectations; and the degree of economic support provided through family, student loans, scholarships, and bursaries. If a youth is motivated post-secondary education remains possible.

The value of post-secondary studies is witnessed from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to St. John’s, Newfoundland.  No matter which province is studied, post-secondary education provides protection against low income and unemployment. A Special Report by Human Resources and Skills Development Canada entitled “What Difference Does Learning Make to Financial Security? (January, 2008) examined unemployment by level of education. Among the unemployed, 12.3% had no high school diploma; 6.5% had High School Graduation; 5.1% had a trades or college certification; and 4% held university degrees.  The study concludes: “higher education reduces the risks of experiencing low income and unemployment regardless of province.”  (p. 10)

While it is interesting to note that statistically, having a post-secondary education plays a positive protective role against unemployment, there is also a geographical component to these trends. For example, post-secondary graduates of all kinds were more able to find employment in more economically viable provinces, such as Alberta, while Newfoundland and Labrador had higher rates of unemployment among those with post-secondary education. While other factors may be at play here, such as the quality of life, the economies of the different regions affect the ability of Canadians to find work.

The amount of post-secondary education obtained also affects the ability of Canadians to find work. Among the unemployed in Alberta only 1% were post-secondary graduates, versus 6% in Newfoundland and Labrador. Nevertheless, post-secondary graduates continue to be at an advantage across Canada, and regional disparities have less of an impact on post-secondary graduates.

While economic well being is but one factor in the well-being of Canadians, I believe it is fundamental to health, longevity, creativity, egalitarian spousal relationships, and emotional intimacy.  Canadians thrive when they are able to achieve economic security and clearly education has a direct influence on the economic security of Canadians.  “Canadians with a post-secondary education make on average $23,000 more per year in income than those Canadians with only a high school diploma; Canadians with a post-secondary education experience higher earnings growth over their careers; they also have up to half the incidence of low income as those with only a high school diploma; they have lower unemployment risks; and finally higher net assets.”  (HRSDC, “What Difference Does Learning Make to Financial Security?” 2008, p.13)

In light of this, we need more resources allocated to Career Counselling at the senior secondary level. Time should be spent not only exploring possible career paths, but also studying how post-secondary education can impact the lives of youth. At present time is spent examining possible career paths beginning in Grade 10, but the advantage of completing a post-secondary education is insufficiently stressed.  How many senior secondary students entertain the idea that completing post-secondary studies can influence their health and longevity?  This goes well beyond the mandate of the “career” courses presently on offer. Youth need the big picture if they are to make meaningful decisions about post-secondary education.

Emily Maceachern

Suggested Readings

Veenstra, Gerry (2010).”Culture and Class in Canada.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology. Vol. 35, no. 1. Open Journal Systems.


Abdelkrim Araar. “Social Classes, Inequality and Redistributive Policies in Canada” Cahier de recherche/Working Paper 08-17. Retrieved November 5th, 2012 from

British  “Social Classes in Canada” 26 October 2008. Files retrieved from…

Caut Almanac of Post-Secondary Education 2012-2013 from

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada. Indicators of Well-being in Canada. Files Retrieved November 5th, 2012 from

Macionis & Gerber. Sociology. Canadian edition. Toronto: Pearson, 2010.

MacKenzie, Hugh (2007) “The rich are getting richer – and we’re all helping” The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. October 4, 2007. File retrieved Nov. 18th, 2012 from–-and-we’re-all-helping

Murphy, Brian, Paul Roberts and Michael Wolfson (2007) “High Income Canadians.” P. 1-13.  Files. Retrieved September 30th, 2012 from


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