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Students make their way to classes at Dalhousie University in Halifax, September 12, 2007.Paul Darrow For The Globe and Mail

Why do some teens go on to university and college while others don't? Is it finances, ambition or something else?

A new study of 10,000 low-income post-secondary students has some surprising results. This latest research shows that teens set their sights on post-secondary education earlier than once believed - before they arrive in Grade 9.

The study also shows that early attitudes about a higher education are just as important as access, raising questions about the best strategies to encourage more youth to attend college or university.

We were fortunate to have a co-author of the report, University of Ottawa economics Professor Ross Finnie, join us Wednesday at noon ET to take your questions.

Natalie Stechyson: Welcome to today's live chat on I'm Natalie Stechyson, one of The Globe's online editors. I'll be hosting today's live discussion with Professor Ross Finnie. We'll be getting under way momentarily. In the meantime, please start submitting your questions.

Ross Finnie: Hello to all. Am looking forward to the discussion.

Natalie Stechyson: Thanks for joining us, Professor Finnie. Let's jump right in. You've mentioned that access to post-secondary education isn't just an economic problem, but also a social one. What are the social influences that seem to determine who goes on to post-secondary education and who doesn't?

Ross Finnie: Well, they are complex, but we know they start early (at least by the time kids enter high school), they are interrelated, and to a large degree they are rooted in the family. So, for example, some young people grow up in families where it is just taken for granted that they will go to college and university, while for others the idea is foreign. But then the details matter too -- are there books in the home? Is there an appreciation for learning? Do they understand the need to invest now (i.e., school) to benefit later. This sort of thing.

Natalie Stechyson: Let's go into some reader questions now. Our first is from Evan Thornton: is there a gender difference in how early the decision is made?

Ross Finnie: Gender is a huge factor in almost anything to do with post-secondary education, starting with the fact that women now make up 60% of incoming university classes, and are more likely to make it through. And yes, of those who go, females are more likely to have decided earlier, which is interesting in itself, and they are probably more prepared to do well when they get there as a result.

M-Rene: I come from a family where both my parents went to university and know for a fact that this is the main reason that both my brother and I ended up going on to university. My wife, however did not go to university. Does having only one university-educated parent decrease the chances that children go on to post-secondary?

Ross Finnie: There are differences, and having both parents who went to university is better (in terms of going to university yourself) than having just one who went, but some work suggests having at least one who went is the biggest effect. Our current research is looking at this further, including how the parent-child gender combination matters. Do mothers generally matter more than fathers? Do mothers matter more, or less, for girls than for boys? And vice versa? That sort of thing. I suspect it all matters, although there is of course significant variation in these influences at the individual level.

H-Dad: My wife and I have been contributing to our 3 children's RESP since they were born. Would this have an influence on their decision whether to pursue university education or not?

Ross Finnie: Yes, but probably not in the way you think. It probably matters (mostly) that you are the sort of parents who do this, and thus clearly value going to university, rather than the savings themselves. You probably do lots of other things that are a little bit different, too, all of which will instill the idea of going to university, and preparing your kids for that. With this done, one way or the other you will find the money they need to do so -- including government sources if needed.

Joy: I believe kids go to college because of their ambition. They'll find money to finish college whether gov't funding or work part-time. Our 3rd and youngest child is in 3rd yr university and she didn't have any idea that we (parents) completed university abroad, but she has the motivation and high achiever

Natalie Stechyson: Can you comment on Joy's point, Professor?

Ross Finnie: I think you are right. "Motivation" is the key. It's just that motivation to go to university is usually related to the parents' having gone. And yes, they'll find the money they need, one way or the other. It is only rarely students actually quit because they don't have enough money.

Cindy: I have a 5 year old. What language can we use now to subtly influence her behaviour?

Ross Finnie: Ahhh, this we don't know precisely, but if you have these concerns, and this orientation towards their going to college or university (as I presume from your statement), you are very likely already communicating that to them. But I would speculate that just bringing the idea of college or university into conversations, perhaps taking them to a campus (just go to the cafeteria and hang out -- they'll probably think it's cool!), and make sure they understand the importance, and value, of higher education in all they will ever want to do (although not in too heavy handed a way), will probably all guide them in that direction -- or at least make them think about that as an option.

Jesse: For university students who do not have parents who themselves attended university, what do you find are the main factors in their decision to attend University? Is there perhaps influence from their high school educators who urge them to further their education?

Ross Finnie: This is a great question, and the key to what policy makers need to know. The problem is, we don't know the answer -- at least not yet. And this is where our efforts have to go now. It will probably take a lot of experimentation, with rigorous analysis of those efforts, to find out. But this is definitely what we need to know, and do, next.

Ross Finnie: I'll add to that previous answer. We used to think the problem was mostly about providing enough student financial aid. We now know it will take much more than that to truly open up schooling choices, especially for those from under-represented groups. That's hugely important, and just tells us where we need to go next. That's the challenge now. but it's a very exciting one.

Dan-m: Are there so many influences and options that teens may feel overly pressured when deciding on University or College?

Ross Finnie: My own sense is that teens do feel very pressured about knowing what they want to do at a young age, and that it stresses them greatly. I would say the whole higher education message should be "Think about going to college or university, but don't worry too much about knowing WHAT you want to study when you get there, or to do after that -- you'll figure that out. But whatever schooling you do -- it will likely open up a whole bunch of opportunities that will change your life for the better. So check it out! (And it might just be a lot of fun, too!)

Dave: I have a university education and so does my oldest child. My youngest, despite being very bright, does not seem to have any ambition with that regard, even though we have given him encouragement. Do some children make the decision later in life. Our encouragement has seem to do very little to influence his decision.

Ross Finnie: I feel your pain! Seriously, it can be frustrating for some parents when their kids don't take the path the parents really believe is best for them. That said, higher education is not for everyone, but some kids also have a hard time understanding that importunities will be lost if they don't go -- to college or university (both are good choices -- for different people). But a kid can be tough to convince, and boys seem to be particularly uninterested in their "careers", or the future at all these days. Many people do start a little later, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. So you have perhaps done all you can do, need to let them find their own way, perhaps not put too much pressure on them, but make it clear you think it would be a good thing and you would support them in that choice in however way makes sense in your situation. Then sit back and hope, and worry. It's what having kids is sometimes about (unfortunately...)

AK: Given your findings, what role do you think government should play?

Ross Finnie: There is a quote from well known social thinker Gosta Esping-Anderson that I love: "We cannot pass laws that force parents to read to their children, but we can compensate." With higher education being so important to a young persons' life opportunities, any true commitment to equality must include action to level the playing field in this regard. So we have to find out how best to "compensate", and I suspect this will include the education system to a large degree. In my opinion, this is a natural role for government. And in addition, our economy depends on it, so it is win-win, and not just about equalising opportunity. How attractive is that?

Natalie Stechyson: We're almost out of time. Professor Finnie, do you have any final thoughts?

Ross Finnie: I think these issues are not only important, but very exciting, and full of opportunity, because I think most Canadians believe in giving kids -- young people -- all the chances they need to build a meaningful and good life, and higher education is key to this. And we can do better in this regard -- we just need to find out what works best. I believe we will do that, and we will change many lives for the better, and make our economiy stronger as a result as well. Pretty good, I think. WE just have to do it.

Ross Finnie: p.s. Those were good questions and comments. Thanks to all those who contributed.

Natalie Stechyson: Thanks so much for joining us today on, Professor Finnie. That's all the time we have. Thanks to everyone for their comments and questions - we received many more questions than we had time to use. It's been a great discussion.

Ross Finnie: My pleasure! Getting out of the old "Ivory Tower" can be pretty interesting. I only hope it can be helpful, too. Thanks!