Apparently, the new Liberal Leader has decided that one of his touchstone policies will be to raise postsecondary attainment rates in Canada from 50 per cent to 70 per cent . No details yet on how he plans to achieve this, but that's not my focus today. Rather, I'd like to look at the underlying math of how you move an attainment rate.
An attainment rate is the percentage of a given population that has completed a certain level of education. Although Trudeau has never specified what age-range he's talking about, the 50 per cent figure (second-best in the world, as it happens) seems to come from OECD's Education at a Glance (EAG), and one can therefore infer that it covers the 25-64 age range.
Evaluating the feasibility of moving the needle on attainment depends on the time-frame in which one expects to complete the task. Trudeau hasn't specified this either, so let's assume for the sake of argument that the intended period is 10 years.
To understand how this might work, let's break-down attainment rates by age (Attainment Rates by Age Cohort, 2011.)
The graph shows that attainment rates will naturally increase as younger, better educated 25-year-olds replace older, less well-educated 64-year-olds. (Though not dramatically so, because Canada's 55-64 year-olds are fairly well-educated). Thus, the status quo alone would raise the attainment rate to 53.5 per cent.
Now, the burden of raising attainment rates tends to fall on the youth who are just leaving high school, because it's a lot easier to get them into postsecondary education than it is people already in the labour force. But doing this one youth cohort at a time is a tough slog – even more so in Canada, where that youth cohort is actually less numerous than the cohorts ahead of it.
A thought experiment can help illustrate how tough this is: Imagine for a moment that every single kid who attends secondary school over the next decade not only graduates from high school, but also graduates from college or university – this would achieve a 100 per cent attainment rate. But here's the kicker: Even if this miracle occurred, it would only raise attainment rates for the population as a whole to 64 per cent.
Assuming that going all Soylent Green on the less-educated elderly is out of the question, then the only other way to bump attainment rates to this high a figure, within a decade, would be to go on the mother-of-all-adult education campaigns. Except that Canada has a pretty terrible record with adult education, so it's not clear how we'd do that.
Verdict? A 70 per cent attainment rate might be achievable in 20 years, but not 10. And so even if he's blessed with his father's political longevity, it's simply not something Justin Trudeau could ever hope to achieve during his time in office.
Alex Usher is the President of Higher Education Strategy Associates.
Editor's Note: The headline has been changed to reflect that the target graduation rate refers to universities and colleges.