Making Post-Secondary Education Possible in a Pandemic

A study by UAlberta’s Community Service-Learning and the Edmonton Social Planning Council is examining the impacts of Edmonton Community Foundation’s post-secondary awards for low-income students.

As part of a five year study, Dr. David Peacock, Director of Community Service-Learning and Sandra Ngo, Research Coordinator with Edmonton Social Planning Council, and Andrea Diamond, Grant Impact Associate with Edmonton Community Foundation (ECF), are tracing how students in financial need with a history of community engagement activity are experiencing post-secondary education and progressing on into their careers or further education.

In interviews, students have attributed the financial support from ECF to positively impacting their health and well-being, improved academic grades, more opportunities for volunteering for causes they feel passionate about, and more time to focus on their family responsibilities. Furthermore, students report spending less time on jobs that are not building social connections and skills related to their intended careers.  In all of these ways, the extra financial assistance from  ECF’s Awards and Bursaries program is helping these students gain confidence and support their identities as successful learners and future professionals.

The Research Team (L-R): Dr. David Peacock, Sandra Ngo and Andrea Diamond.

ECF’s Awards and Bursaries program is designed to help students from Edmonton and Northern Alberta as they access and progress successfully through post-secondary education. For many equity-seeking students (racialized, low-income, significant caring responsibilities etc.), this can be a challenging journey at the best of times.  The pandemic makes it worse.  In interviews conducted since March, students have said:

  • ‘But in light of COVID happening, I think that my plans for the future have been put on hold, because I feel like the pandemic has set us six months back or even a year, I don’t know…. I don’t know what the prospects are in terms of opportunities because you look on websites and companies that usually have about 12 positions open have one, or some don’t have any at all.’
  • ‘…if the cases really increase, it might affect my studies because I won’t to be able to do clinicals because we practice in the hospital… Like this summer, I’ve not been able to work because of COVID. And I need to make savings for my school year.’
  • ‘I feel like with a psych degree, a lot of your jobs are in-person services. So, helping out with homeless shelters and working with people with disabilities. All of the jobs I’ve had are pretty much in person. But then I feel like all of that has been pushed away.’

Clearly, although the pandemic has interrupted students’ educational and career plans, ECF’s Awards and Bursaries have acted as a cushion and lessened COVID’s impacts.

The study is also examining ECF’s own awards application and granting processes in the hope to make them as efficient and equitable as possible.  Of the 302 applicants for the ECF Awards and Bursaries program across 2018 and 2019, 215 students (68%) were successful in gaining an award. These awards ranged from $1000 to $6000 depending upon adjudicated need.   Mature students with dependents, and persons of colour, had a higher chance of receiving an award, as did students who were not able to find work while studying to support themselves financially.

Initial regression analysis, however, shows that while applicant reviewers appear to be favouring equity factors like ethnocultural and gender identities when distributing awards, they have not placed the same emphasis on factors like Indigeneity and health status. Being Indigenous, for instance, had no impact on applicants receiving an award — a concerning result. Yet more research is needed in upcoming cohorts to validate this finding. This will include separately examining the effects of Indigenous applicants receiving other ECF awards, such as the Belcourt Brosseau Métis Award.

The researchers intend following the lives of the student participants as they complete their diplomas and degrees and move into employment.  One of the hopes of the funder is that the volunteering and community engagement activities of students will persist into their professional futures.  The early evidence to date, from interviews of students six months after their convocation, is promising!  For students in financial need and a heart for volunteering in their communities, the ECF Awards and Bursaries are making a difference in tough times.