Equity, Opinion, Pathways

Bringing Students Back In

The role of student unions in curtailing post-secondary dropouts

Prior to entering a post-secondary institution, students are constantly bombarded with information about the importance of pursuing post-secondary education, because these ‘institutes of higher learning’ open doors to greater opportunities for those who choose that path rather than entering the workforce immediately after receiving their secondary school diploma or equivalent certification.

Students enter colleges and universities with a wealth of knowledge from all over the world and these institutions are tasked with combining all of these unique experiences to develop a learning structure for the leaders of tomorrow. This is a complex task that requires an understanding of the populations that fill these institutions. The demographics of student populations across Canada represent individuals whose identities vary in age, race, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic status, among other characteristics. These identities inform the perspectives of students that pursue post-secondary education and across this wide range of identity lines, the question still remains: why are students unable to complete their post-secondary studies?

One of the greatest influencing factors in a student’s choice to stay in school is program affordability. As a student in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa, the cost of tuition, and incidental fees, for my first year of study was a little under $3,100 (excluding housing, textbooks, and additional living costs). Four years later, the entering cost exceeds $3,400 and continues to rise annually. When supporting student populations, it is essential that the students have the ability to voice their concerns and opinions about the services offered to them and how these services are, or are not, meeting their needs. Similar to many other post-secondary institutions, the University of Ottawa offers a work-study program, to allow students to maintain a part-time job during the academic year. As a first-generation university student who is studying away from home, I valued the opportunity to support myself financially throughout my undergrad. I participated in the work-study program during my third year. In years prior I, along with other students, faced incredible difficulties accessing the program because of the eligibility restrictions related to the difference between your expenses and your gross income. I was denied twice from the program because I accrued too much debt, although demonstrating financial need is an eligibility requirement. After going to the Financial Aid office to inquire further, I was ultimately told that if students needed that much money to cover the costs of their expenses, they should consider looking elsewhere for jobs.

I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to work full-time as an executive member of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) – the students’ union representing over 30,000 undergraduate students. Academic supports provided by universities do not assess students’ cases holistically and these services often struggle to adequately address the root cause of the student dropout rate. At the SFUO, there are staff and volunteers who work throughout the year to administer services that benefit the student population. The Student Federation owns and operates the campus Food Bank, which hosts regular breakfasts and lunchtime cooking classes, as well as keeping the shelves stocked to ensure that students do not feel pressured to choose between receiving a healthy meal and purchasing their course material.

There are a multitude of services that the SFUO provides to ensure student success by hosting events that aim to educate, provide safe drop-in spaces, and advocate for the rights of students who are often found at the margins of discussions surrounding post-secondary education because of their race, ability, gender, socio-economic status, etc. This concept is not unique to the SFUO; students’ unions across the country do the same work for their students by starting and restarting conversations with students, faculty members, administration, and community members to ensure students’ needs are being prioritized in spaces that focus on our learning and development.

One of the roadblocks I encountered in my work at the Student Federation was figuring out how to reach out to communities that have limited to no connection with the students’ union. Tackling this challenge required conversations with students whose experiences differed from my own. As a Social Sciences student, it was challenging to understand how to provide supports for students in programs that had more structured course sequences or heavier workloads, such as business, nursing or engineering. There are programs of study, such as law, education, and medicine that require different types of supports to ensure student success. The work of students’ unions shows how far students are able to push their own limits to support each other. There are other characteristics that complicate the work of students’ unions to provide support mechanisms for students.

The needs of part-time students vary from those of full-time students, as part-time students are often working one or two part-time jobs to cover their living costs and tuition. Mature students often return to continue their post-secondary pursuits either because they have dependants, because they chose to enter the workforce and gain new skills afterwards, or any number of circumstances. The Association of Part-Time Undergraduate Students (APUS) at the University of Toronto aims to represent the interests of part-time students on all three of the University of Toronto campuses, providing them with access to a health and dental plan and a variety of other resources. MatSA, the University of Toronto Mature Students Association, is a student group that aims to provide resources to student-parents and other mature students, in order for them to have access to the tools and spaces other students typically use on their campuses. 

Student-led associations provide a variety of support resources that might not otherwise be provided for students on Canadian campuses. The work that student unions do to defend students’ rights in within the academic environment, offer them spaces for learning outside of class, and advocate for accessible education is what keeps students in classrooms and helps them build safe, non-judgmental communities outside of post-secondary institutions irrespective of whether they choose to continue their studies.


This blog post is connected to Education Canada Magazine’s Towards Fewer Dropouts theme issue and The Facts on Education fact sheet, How Can We Prevent High School Dropouts? Please contact info@cea-ace.ca  if you would like to contribute a blog post to this series.

Meet the Expert(s)

maya mcdonald

Maya McDonald

Maya is a fourth-year political science student at the University of Ottawa. She has just completed her mandate as the Vice-President, Equity, of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, an undergraduate students’ union that seeks to make the post-secondary education system accessible to all.

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