Predicting post-secondary education attainment

by Mohamed Amery

This article first appeared in the summer 2003 issue of the Expert Witness.

When the plaintiff is a teenager, the first step in predicting that individual’s without-accident earnings capacity is to predict the level of education that would have been achieved by that individual. A recent study, by George Butlin of Statistics Canada, provides a considerable amount of new information concerning the factors that determine whether a high school graduate will enter trade-school, college, or university.

One of the most important of these factors is the education of the parents. Whereas 70 percent of high school graduates with at least one university educated parent attended university, only 43 percent of graduates whose parents had college or trade-vocational level education did so. At the same time, of the graduates whose parents had less than or equal to a high-school education level, only 30 percent participated in university. Conversely, just 18 percent of graduates whose parents were university educated attended a community college.

Butlin also found that, of high-school graduates who failed a grade in elementary school, only 11 percent attended university. This figure is significantly lower than the 46 percent university attendance rate for those who did not fail an elementary grade. He hypothesised that “failing a grade in elementary school may be an indicator of a range of problems beyond academic difficulties [such as] family problems, behavioural problems, psychological problems, language problems, and so forth.” That is, the same factors that resulted in students’ failing elementary grades were also at work in deterring students from entering university.

High-school graduates from two-parent families were found to be more likely to attend university than those from lone-parent households. However, Butlin also found that there were no major differences between two-parent and lone-parent families regarding a graduate’s participation in college or trade-vocational schooling. Those from rural areas were also found to have a lower likelihood of attending university than those from urban areas (34 percent versus 45 percent).

Finally, Butlin found that participation in extra-curricular activities while in high-school acted as a predictor of enrolment at university. High school graduates who had either worked at a job for less than 20 hours per school week throughout their high school years, or who had not worked during their last year of studies at all, had a 45 percent likelihood of attending university. Whereas, of those students who had worked more than 20 hours per week, only 27 percent proceeded onto university schooling. This is not to say that working while in high school “causes” students to choose educational streams other than university. Rather, a more plausible hypothesis is that students who do not intend to enter university take their high school studies less seriously than do those who plan to continue their education and, hence, have more time available for work. Nevertheless, participation in extra-curricular activities can be an important piece of information when predicting the post-secondary education of teenagers.


Butlin, G. (1999), “Determinants of Postsecondary Participation” 5(3) Education Quarterly Review (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, Catalogue No. 81-003), 9-35.


Mohamed Amery was a research assistant with Economica and an honours economics student at the University of Calgary.