Quebec has lowest high school graduation rate in North America

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

Wikipedia Commons

When a bachelors degree has become the standard to get a good job, one location in the North American continent lags behind in their high school graduation rate. Only 64 percent of public high school students graduate in the Canadian province of Quebec according to The Institut du Quebec study released on Tuesday, May 1, 2018,, in partnership with the Conference Board of Canada and HEC Montréal. Mia Homsy, the director of the Institut du Québec co-wrote the study with economist Simon Savard. While the number only rises to 69 percent when private school students are counted. The study looked at the graduation rates for students that complete their studies within a five-year period divided between public and private schools and overall going back to 2008 through 2015. When looking at the public school numbers Quebec, it has the lowest graduation rate in the entire continent, Canada, and the United States.

Quebec’s high school system is different than anywhere else in Canada and the US. Students start in grade seven or second one and go to grade 11 or secondary 5, a full grade less than us the norm. This is because before entering university in the province, high school graduates are required to attend a junior college called Cegep where they can take either the pre-university stream or a career diploma. Additionally, Quebec's school system is not only divided by public or private or in the US charter schools but by language where students either go to an English or French system, with the majority in the French as it is the provinces official language. The graduation rates are greatly affected by the language disparities.

The study found that in Quebec that the overall graduation rate was between 68 and 69 percent, with 64 percent graduating within five years in the public school system and nearly 84 percent from private schools. In the last ten years, Quebec's rates have dropped from 65 to 64 percent, while neighboring province Ontario's rate increased from 72 to 84 percent. Ontario has instituted a number of reforms that have contributed to their increased rate including starting school at four-years-old while making attendance mandatory until 18 the age of students graduating grade 12 and requiring teachers to continue their education. During high school, they have made it easier for students who fail to redo just a part of the subject with a credit-recovery program. They also have a hands-on learning program and the option to take specialized courses, which keeps students interested. Students are the most at risk of dropping out in grades 9 and 10.

Quebec argues that they have determined their graduation rate is 71 percent for 2014 according to their calculations. They are also objecting to the comparisons with Ontario. One of the reasons is the different marks required to pass in Quebec it is 60 percent versus 50 percent in Ontario. Education Minister Sébastien Proulx was angered by the report. Proulx told the press, "I'm not saying these distinctions justify anything. What I'm saying is that you have to compare apples to apples."

The overall public high school graduation rate for Canada is 77 percent. The graduation rate in Quebec is 8 percent lower than the next province Saskatchewan, whose rate is 72 percent. In addition to Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick all have an 84 percent graduation rate. Canada and its provinces all pale to the graduation rates in the US. High school graduation rates in the US have reached an all-time high, in the 2014-15 year, the same last year in the Canadian study, the rate was 83.2 percent for public high school graduates who complete their studies in the normal four-year period. There numbered have been rising in the US for the last five years reported. The highest rate was in Iowa with 90.8 percent, while the lowest was in the District of Columbia at 68.5 percent, which was still four points higher than Quebec's public school rate. The rate increased to 84 percent in 2016.

Unlike in the United States where graduation rates are determined more by poverty, in Quebec language, gender and disability are the factors that are lowering the rate. Only half of the boys that go to high school graduate. The biggest problem is with male students, where only 51.4 percent graduate within five years as of 2014. Quebec public schools have the largest disparity between the genders, 14 percent, with 71 percent of females compared to 57 percent of males graduating by the time they are 18. The national average in Canada of students, who complete their studies by age 19 since there is a grade 12, is 81 percent of females, and 71 percent of males. While in Ontario, it’s 87 percent of females and 82 percent of males graduating high school.

The numbers shrink in Quebec, when looking at the students graduating on time, to 67 percent of females and only 51 percent of male students. The differences increase when comparing the school language systems. In the Anglophone board, there are the largest graduation rates in the public system with 80 percent of female students and 70 percent of males. Proulx also believes French parents are not emphasizing the importance of education enough which is why students do fare as well in the Francophone schools. The education minister told the press, “We need people to get involved. Historically, on the francophone side, yes we’ve had school dropouts but there is also a parental-dropout problem. It is not valorized enough. We have to look at ourselves in the eye as a society.”

Disabilities is another factor. While only 31 percent of students with disabilities graduate although they represent 30 percent of all students in the province. Special needs students also face a gender disparity with 70 percent being males. One of the problems leading todropouts is the province does not mainstream the students enough.

One of the reasons that the rate is so low in public schools is because the provincial government continues to cut their funding, with 1.5 billion less in the budget from 2010 to 2016. Quebec spends less on its students than Ontario. The teachers’ union Fédération autonome de l'enseignement (FAE) commented to the press, "How could the authors of the report claim that the chronic underfunding of the public school system in Quebec hasn't hurt Quebec students.” The federation represents 34,000 teachers. The teachers saying they are teaching with austerity measures. This is despite the province investing 1.8 billion to increase the graduation rate to 85 by 2030.

The co-author of the study and the director of the Institut du Québec, Mia Homsy thinks Quebec needs to do more or else they will continue to lag behind. Homsy told the Globe and Mail, “We have to do a better job of following our students, we have to rethink every decision we’ve made in the past decade. Something’s not working but nobody knows what the problem is. It’s a black box. And as long as advanced data are lacking, Quebec’s long-term efforts to catch up will be incomplete.” Among the basic suggestions, Quebec needs to cut class sizes, make kindergarten for four-year-olds olds mandatory, integrate special needs students, and keep better records of data for starters.

Although, high school students in Quebec do not complete their studies in five years, most eventually receive it. Within seven years the graduation rate is 80 percent and among those aged 25 to 34, 89 percent have a degree. Still, Quebec is behind British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, where the provinces have a 93 percent high school graduation rate by 34-years-old. However, the later one completes their studies the fewer opportunities for higher education and reaching one’s earning potential. Quebec has one consolation, the dropout rate has decreased from 20 percent in 1999-2000 to 12 percent in 2015.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University), is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor. She is a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at where she covered politics, universities, religion, and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @

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