Back when the McGuinty government was still working out what it wanted to do in higher education, it made a commitment about making progress in access for four key groups: aboriginal students, students with disabilities, francophone students and “first-generation” students.
Two of these were unquestionably sensible. Anything that helps Aboriginal students is a Good Thing. Of course, there are some enormous differences in the barriers faced by, say, Aboriginal students from Toronto and people from fly-in First Nations communities that aren’t well-reflected in policy, but let it pass. Ditto with students with disabilities; there are a wide variety of barriers faced by people grouped under this term – some less tractable than others – but it’s obviously a group worthy of monitoring and assistance.
“Francophones” are harder to justify as a category. There’s no doubt that their access rates are a bit weak, but this mostly due to differences in performance at the secondary level (which in turn is mostly a reflection of education in northern Ontario as a whole). But hey, they’re a key part of the Liberal election coalition, so why not?
Then, there’s “first-generation students”, (meaning “students whose parents have no post-secondary experience”), a concept which was very definitely borrowed from the US. In the American literature, the term basically covers a mix of rural (southern & Appalachian) whites, urban blacks, and Western Latinos (East-coast Latinos – mainly Puerto Ricans – have access rates more comparable to whites).
Now, there is some corroborating evidence in the Canadian data on first generation students. Parental education levels are still – nationally, at any rate – the best predictors of a child’s advancing to higher education.
But our “first generation” consist of Aboriginals, rural whites and a whole heck of a lot of Chinese, Sikh, and Vietnamese immigrants. Those first two have some similarity to the first gen population in the US; the last, needless to say, are completely and utterly unlike the others.
A couple of years ago, we at HESA worked on an experiment to test some ideas about improving access through better student aid information in some GTA schools with very high numbers of “first-generation students”. The trouble with the project was that pretty much all of these students already assumed they were going to university (not college). Many came from Confucian cultures where a very significant emphasis was put on education; all were children of immigrants and hence considerably more likely to be “strivers”. They were “first gen”, yes, but that clearly wasn’t a barrier. There were few “at risk” students among them.
It’s not that the first-generation concept is without merit. It does, however, need some fine-tuning for it to become a policy measure which is actually useful.