Developing my ‘education capital’

Why democratizing education is important

I was an FGS, or first-generation student. This means my parents didn’t attend a post-secondary institution. And according to a recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, it was unlikely for someone like me to even attend university at all.

The study revolves around this idea of “education capital.” It goes something like this: As you study, you gather education capital and it accumulates in your house. Then you have kids and you’re able to pass it on to them.

Children who are raised in households with high education capital are more likely to attend post-secondary and continue to build their own education capital. If your parents didn’t pursue post-secondary education, your odds of doing so were just cut in half.

But there are other ways your education capital can also drop. Living in rural areas or coming from a low-income background, for example, also reduce your odds of attending post-secondary.

The interesting part is what happens when these students defy the odds and attend anyway, though.

In contrast to the study’s main thesis, as I went through high school — the oldest of nine children — to attend university or not was never a question. My only question was where. In the fall of 2005, I was off to St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. and four years later I left with my bachelor’s degree in history. I didn’t know how I would finance my education or what I would do with my degree afterward, but I knew this was an important step for me to take.

Once anyone makes the choice to attend post-secondary, the study says all the traditional barriers of cost, classism and accessibility melt away. No matter their background, any single student has roughly the same odds of graduating and getting their degree as any other student.

So the question then becomes: How do we get other first-generation students to make the choice to attend?

The culture around what’s accessible is changing. While it’s expensive, and many go deep into debt, university is no longer seen as only for the elite. It’s a place where anyone who wants to pursue an education can. I see this change happening in my own family. An aunt and myself are the only ones who currently have a university degree, but the rest of my high-school graduated siblings are now also attending post-secondary. And the others are making plans too.

Without meaning to, I think my aunt and I helped to boost the education capital in my own family, even though neither of us live in the same province anymore.

And universities are capitalizing on what the study is calling the “democratization” of education. I moved into an all-first-year residence building in fall 2005 that was designed to make my transition to university life easier on me. More and more universities are developing “first-year experience” support programs. Others have bursaries and grants specifically targeted at first-generation students.

Regardless of all the current barriers to accessible post-secondary education, I think we can all agree that an educated population is invaluable and fostering this attitude among all types of people is only a good thing.

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