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A good old-fashioned dictionary. If you want to know who goes to university - and this is the time of year when prospective students are thinking about fall education possibilities - check whether the family home has a dictionary.

A dictionary is not literally the ticket to university. It's more like a symbol of what's going on in the family, and what kind of family the prospective student comes from.

More research is now available suggesting that family income, while important, isn't the major determinant of who goes to university. It turns out that parents' own education levels - and, by extension, the importance they place on education - are more critical than income, and that what we might call "cultural" factors are more important than money.

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And that poses a real dilemma for governments, because their ability to influence "cultural" factors is very limited.

How do you hold a family together? How do you encourage parents to monitor their children's study habits? How do you get parents to read to children, or encourage children themselves to read, since reading is one of the biggest indicators of who goes to university? (Hence the dictionary as symbol, if not tool.) Student aid programs, for example, can be tied to income, but if performance - or readiness for university - is related more to "cultural" factors than income, then student aid doesn't address adequately the old question of who goes to university and why. And since universities are important rungs on the ladder of social and economic mobility, who gets on those rungs is awfully important.

The University of Ottawa's Ross Finnie is one of those professors who delights in analyzing statistics. The more detailed, the better, because he's like the proverbial kid in the candy shop when immersed in them. And he's among a cadre of researchers slicing and dicing Statistics Canada data about young people, especially those going to university.

In a recent paper, written with Richard Mueller, he said "parental education is a stronger predictor of university participation than parental income," a finding that corroborates studies by other researchers.

Consider this: Young males have about a 10-per-cent university participation rate if they come from a family with parents who didn't finish high school. But if the measure is only family income between $0 and $5,000, then almost 25 per cent of young males go to university. So you can see in the gap between 10 per cent and 25 per cent the importance of parents' life, example and ambition in determining who goes to university.

If one or two parents have university education, the attendance figure jumps to more than 60 per cent for males and the mid-70-per-cent range for females. (Females now greatly outnumber males among all university students.) Prof. Finnie looked at things in the home as indicators of what kind of situation might produce university students. Having a dictionary is the most powerful indicator - and they don't cost much - followed by the Internet, which does. The presence of some classical literature helps, as do the number of books around. The larger the number of books, the greater the likelihood of someone going to university - just as success in reading tests is a good indicator of heading to university or not.

Immigrants, especially from Asia, get the importance of higher education. Overall, immigration participation rates are higher than for those who are Canadian by birth. Intact families help, too, with children from two-parent families about 10 points more likely to attend university than those from single-parent families.

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This being said, what are governments supposed to do about these "cultural" factors? Not much. They can try to ease the path financially for students, but these "cultural" factors extend beyond governments' ability to do much.

We've asked schools for a long time to do many things beyond pure teaching to try to compensate for the social problems society dumps on them. It's been difficult, even unfair, for the schools.

Some governments have tried to ease the financial path to university by keeping fees low, ostensibly to improve access. (Quebec's are the lowest in North America, but there's no evidence of higher participation rates.) Study after study has rebuffed that theory, in that higher fees are actually not much, if any, deterrent - not when compared with a host of other factors. But, politically, keeping fees down has often been attractive, although they've been rising above inflation in recent years to make up for the reduction in government funding.

It turns out from Prof. Finnie's research that one determinant of who goes to university is whether family members talked around the dinner table. How's any government going to regulate or encourage that? A tax incentive for dinner conversation? Or for buying a dictionary?

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