Education funding vital for native youth

TheStar.com – Opinion
Published On Tue Mar 02 2010.   Shawn A-in-chut-Atleo National Chief, Assembly of First Nations

Providing for a college or university education is never easy. Families must cope with the ever-rising costs of tuition, books and student housing. It’s an ongoing challenge for many of us.

Fortunately, a federal program – the Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP) – has helped many First Nations students break free from customary paths of unemployment and graduate to develop successful careers.

We can easily see the results of this program. In 1963, only three First Nations students graduated with a post-secondary degree. By 2006, more than 132,000 post-secondary students graduated – many of whom were the first in their families to do so.

For sure, this effort needs to be strategized carefully as access to funding is not the only factor contributing to this success. Residential schools began closing while a number of First Nations schools opened on-reserve, improving the quality of early education and generating a cohort of high-school graduates who would be prepared to move on to the post-secondary level. But certainly, access to funding support was vital in supporting students whose families had few means of saving for post-secondary education.

Despite this success, the reality is that more support is needed. Only 7.1 per cent of First Nations graduate university, compared with 24 per cent of their non-native peers. To close this gap, we’d need to see 65,000 more First Nations students holding diplomas and degrees.

The good news is that more than 80 per cent of First Nations youth want to pursue a higher education. They believe education will help them advance the goals of their communities and enable them to better support their families. Affordability remains the main barrier. In fact, many First Nations are forced to delay or decline post-secondary education because they are already financially supporting their families.

Although most First Nations youth want to go to college or university, funding sources like the PSSSP are inadequate to keep up with demand. The PSSSP program has been capped for more than a decade at a time of rapidly increasing tuition levels, meaning that fewer students have access each year. In the first half of this decade, more than 10,000 students who might have become entrepreneurs, health-care providers or skilled labourers, have had their dreams delayed or denied at a great cost to our communities and to Canada.

Economists tell us that two-thirds of all job openings over the next 10 years will require post-secondary education, and they also predict that Canada will not have enough skilled workers to meet this need. Meanwhile, First Nations youth, the fastest growing population in Canada, are eager to get an education and launch their careers, but the financial support is not available.

What we must do is obvious.

We must invest in education now – and give First Nations youth an opportunity to fill these jobs. According to the Canadian Centre for Living Standards, doing so would add $179 billion to Canada’s economy by 2026. That’s a sound investment with a promising return for everyone.

Funding sources such as PSSSP need improvement and need increased investment. Canada’s auditor general has said that the Department of Indian Affairs’ administration of PSSSP can and must be improved. Several of the more than 22 studies on First Nations education penned since 1999 have identified the need for greater investment in PSSSP.

In this week’s upcoming budget, consideration must be given to the most effective way to support First Nations youth. Now is not the time to reduce or eliminate these vital sources of support for our students. Rather, it is a time to bolster and strengthen programs reinforcing the critical role of First Nations communities in supporting, mentoring and encouraging their students to grow and to learn. In turn, this enables the students to be part of building their communities and economies, and the economy of Canada.

Lastly, investment in education and enhancing the post-secondary student support program is an important part of overcoming the shameful legacy of the residential school era. Our communities need the ideas, vitality and innovation that our youth contribute when they complete their education – and so does Canada.

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