Home | Media Coverage | School ‘Credit Mills’ Are Still a Problem, but Cardus Offers Solutions

School ‘Credit Mills’ Are Still a Problem, but Cardus Offers Solutions

This article originally ran in The Hamilton Spectator on June 29, 2024.

Ontario’s government needs to toughen its approach to high school credit mills.

Two decades ago media reports emerged about students “buying” their way into top marks. A decade ago, Ontario’s auditor general warned about the issue. Still today, some schools exist more to turn a profit than to educate students.

For the first time, we’re getting a better idea of how much of a problem this is.

A deep dive by think tank Cardus looked at 272 schools marketing themselves as places to obtain Ontario Secondary School Diploma (OSSD) credits. Putting those schools through a 17-point test for legitimacy allowed schools to be categorized as having weak, moderate or strong levels of legitimacy.

The result? Just less than a third (78 out of 272) of the schools are considered to have weak legitimacy, which we might commonly call a “credit mill.”

Putting this into perspective, the provincial government counted almost 1,600 independent schools in Ontario as of May 2024. About 433 of them are secondary schools, in addition to 364 combined elementary and secondary school. This means that of the possible 797 schools offering credits toward a high school diploma, 78 score poorly according to the Cardus framework.

So, credit mills may not be widespread, but there are enough that they should draw serious government attention. Put another way, 78 low-legitimacy schools offering high school credits are 78 too many.

Worryingly, of all 272 schools analyzed, 251 had Ontario Ministry of Education approval to offer OSSD credits, suggesting that they continue to pass biennial inspections.

Actually, 65 of the 78 low-legitimacy schools had approval from Ontario’s Ministry of Education.

Clearly something is wrong with inspections. The fact is, Ministry of Education inspection reports only apply to course content. Other items apparently fall through the cracks. For example, one school repeatedly approved by the ministry to offer OSSD credits has a website that includes links to online gambling sites and lists its main sponsor as a site providing casino reviews. “Read below about how to play and win at online casinos,” the school site suggests.

This situation is especially concerning for young international students who may come as minors to obtain an Ontario high school diploma. Many low-legitimacy schools are businesses marketing themselves to international students. The minimal regulation around starting an independent school in Ontario is unique among provinces, as is the fact that Ontario provides no funding to any independent school.

Other provinces, like British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba, attach regulatory requirements to funding. In Alberta, for example, all independent schools are required to operate as non-profits or charities. This means Alberta’s independent schools must meet charitable institutions’ accountability and transparency standards.

It’s long past time for Ontario to get a handle on low-legitimacy schools that market themselves as a way to get high school diploma credits. After all, the vast majority of Ontario’s 1,600 independent schools seek legitimacy and provide high-quality education that meets the needs of a diverse Ontario population.

Many independent school leaders, particularly in urban settings, share concerns about the growth of bad actors and want to encourage quality education.

Given limited overall resources, the province should begin by strictly applying its existing policy to revoke credit-granting authority to non-compliant independent schools.

Then the government should recognize the legitimacy of independent schools that are affiliated with or members of recognized school associations. These associations are key institutions that help maintain education quality. This recognition would allow Ontario to prioritize the inspection of schools with no association affiliation or membership.

Ontario also needs to strengthen its relationship with the independent school sector. It can work with independent school leaders and school associations to increase school legitimacy.

Part of the problem is the provincial law considers independent schools “businesses” instead of what they are — schools.

Finally, the province should work with federal agencies to strengthen laws around homestay, guardianship, and student visas for international students attending Ontario high schools as minors.

All Ontario students — public, independent or international — deserve better. The time for solutions is long overdue. The credit mills problem has gone on too long already.

  • Joanna DeJong VanHof is a researcher at Cardus, a Hamilton-based public policy think tank.

June 29, 2024

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About 29% of Ontario’s credit-emphasis independent schools could be “credit mills.”