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Canada has earned praise for levelling the financial playing field for lower-income students. The problem is many of them are not being targeted early enough.

Many young teenagers set their sights on university or college earlier than once believed – before they arrive in Grade 9 – raising questions about whether governments and educators are focusing on the right years of schooling.

New research shows that almost half of low-income students make their decision about postsecondary education before they even set foot in high school, regardless of the financial burden. This presents a unique challenge for governments, in that early attitudes about higher education are just as important as access.

For governments looking to strengthen Canada's work force, it will mean redirecting some of their efforts from making education affordable to reaching out earlier than previously realized was necessary to those at risk of not advancing.

"The challenge for government is it's easy for them to play with capital, to play with money. The trickier part is to target interventions that will increase social capital or cultural capital," said Alex Usher, president of the Toronto-based consultancy firm Higher Education Strategy Associates.

For every teen influenced by parents or culture to obtain postsecondary education, others receive little input. And it's these late deciders who are much more likely to leave university or college without graduating, according to the study of 10,000 low-income postsecondary students. The study was conducted by the Measuring the Effectiveness of Student Aid project, a research undertaking funded by the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation.

What's needed, education experts say, is a strategy built into the elementary- and middle-school years that encourages adolescents and teens to start choosing career paths with the possibility of attending college or university. University fairs, for example, should target middle-school students, as well as those in high school, and career programs need to be developed for those early schooling years.

Ross Finnie, a University of Ottawa economics professor and co-author of the study, said financial aid packages remain crucial. However, he said, the research suggests policy makers need to remember that access to postsecondary education is not just an economic problem but also a social one.

"Affordability is still crucial. Policy has done a good job of making it pretty affordable. Those who want to go, can go one way or the other," he said. "But if you want to bring under-represented groups into postsecondary education and to give them that opportunity, policies are going to have to start much earlier than they do now."

In some corners of the country, there are early signs of action being taken.

The University of British Columbia sends its students to dozens of inner-city elementary schools during the reading week holiday to inspire younger students about the possibility of university. At Branksome Hall, a private all-girls school in Toronto, science instructors teaching the Grade 7 and 8 robotics unit will, for example, make reference to pursuing a career in engineering and computer science. And the Peel Region District School Board, west of Toronto, promotes early career planning so students understand the educational path needed to pursue a certain field.

The MESA study showed that those who decided during or after high school to attend university or college are more likely to leave after the first or second year. Alex Scott, a Grade 9 student at Maple High School in Maple, Ont., said he has friends who have yet to make a decision on postsecondary education. He plans to attend university or college so he can pursue a career as a computer technician, auto mechanic or civil engineer.

"Most of my friends still don't know what they're going to do. They're either nervous because they don't know what they're good at, or that they haven't thought really hard about it yet," the 14-year-old said.

For students who made the decision early, parents play a big role. Classmate Pawrnaa Perinpanayagam is determined to attend university, a decision she said she made in Grade 5.

"It was always the thing that was mentioned in my family, when people go off to university," she said. "It's an expectation that you end up going to university."