Beyond HEQCO’s Skills Assessments

Validation of a Measure of Students’ Academic Capital and Evidence of Grade Inflation in Ontario’s High Schools and Universities

  • James Cote Western University
  • J. Paul Grayson York University
  • Sharon Roberts Renison University College at the University of Waterloo
  • Liang Hsuan Chen University of Toronto, Scarborough



In the U.S., it is well documented that many students enter universities unprepared, lacking the basic academic skills necessary for optimal, or even positive, outcomes. However, less evidence has been reported on this problem in Canada, and there appears to be a public impression that Canada’s universities have higher standards, on average, than American universities. This perception is reflected in documents produced by the Ontario Government, but documents prepared by independent sources, such as Statistics Canada and HEQCO, suggest otherwise.

The present article adds to this independent literature, reporting on a new empirical measure based on a suite of questions assessing the basic academic skills necessary to meet the challenges of a higher education. Seven sets of skills were identified and through exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis two forms of academic capital were identified, as were three clusters of students. Evidence for validity of these measures was found in terms of hypothesized associations with student grades, satisfaction, and thoughts of dropping out. Demographic differences (e.g., family background, gender) were minimal. The results suggest that a majority of Ontario’s university students are at-risk of sub-optimal academic outcomes, including a sizeable minority that is likely dysfunctional in contexts in which using basic academic skills would be necessary to pass courses if it were not for grade inflation. These students report lower grades, greater dissatisfaction with the university experience, and more frequent thoughts of dropping out. Policy implications are discussed in terms of what governments, secondary schools, and universities might do to reduce skill deficiencies and the associated negative experiences with post-secondary education.