The cost of a university education

It’s over. The humid nights at boisterous parties, the spontaneous excursions to overcrowded beaches and parks, the long drives that ended with large family gatherings. Summer’s gone and it’s time revisit our old responsibilities.

If you’re like most UTM students, you might have invested a portion of your vacation time into a summer job. But if you’re like most other students, the bundle of cash you saved up this summer probably looks petty in the shadow of another academic year and its expenses.

If you’ve decided to apply for government aid, like 300,000 of your peers have, you’re in for a couple of changes this fall. One change was set in motion last October when the provincial elections sparked interest in the already much-talked-about aspect of student life. In particular, Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government introduced a new grant that promised 30% off of college and university tuition. The grant was intended especially for low- and middle-income families.

The second change introduced by the Liberal government for this fall is a cap of $7,300 on annual debt per student per two-term academic year. Meanwhile, the loans remain interest-free until six months after graduation.

Obviously, these are some pretty serious changes. But why now? And why these specific grants and caps and interest-free periods? Many of the statistics that were cited in preparation for these changes may not come as a surprise. For example, the rate of university enrolment has increased by 26% in Ontario—almost double the national average. The rate of college enrolment has increased by 18.5% in Ontario. And yet a survey conducted on high school students found that 72% of students listed “finances” as their barrier to higher education.

This seems contradictory. On one hand, more and more Ontario residents are signing on for postsecondary education. On the other hand, many high school students are now saying they won’t be taking postsecondary education. One conclusion to be made is that many of those students who are going on to postsecondary are doing so even though they have less than enough to cover the costs. In fact, recent polling by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations indicates that Ontarians list affordability of postsecondary education as a major concern, just behind quality of health care, and ahead of unemployment and reducing taxes.

Studies like the one done on high school students plus the voiced concerns of Ontario residents led the government to propose the change. Another line of reasoning was that the economic and social well-being of the young information-based society is dependent on its members receiving a postsecondary education.

But what do all these changes mean for the average student? No doubt students who applied for the grant were happy when they received their bank statements this year. But many students are less than thrilled with the changes.

Some students believe that changes to OSAP and grant amounts should not be the answer to rising tuition fees.

Grants like the one proposed will cost $200 million in taxes this year and $486 million by the 2015/16 academic year.

Some students believe that changes to OSAP and grant amounts should not be the answer to rising tuition fees. Natalie Hawchar, a third-year UTM student majoring in criminology and psychology, believes that the increases in tuition fees are unnecessary and criticizes the Ministry of Education for refusing to play a bigger role in covering the costs for students to attend postsecondary institutions.

Hawchar also pointed out that tuition covers almost half of the administration and operating revenues of universities. This, she says, is way too much. Working, studying, and juggling extracurricular activities puts extreme pressure on students, she says, and tuition fees and the high cost of living place even greater burdens on them. Recent surveys corroborate her concerns. Unsurprisingly, another OCUFA survey showed that over three quarters of students report that working during the school year has a negative effect on their grades. In these cases, Hawchar believes, the “30% Off Tuition” grant isn’t much help.

Another student, Rafia Aquil, said that the political party failed to address the narrow eligibility requirements for OSAP. This criticism is strengthened by recent studies on what is colloquially termed the “OSAP diet” and how insufficient funds leave students living below the poverty line. A 2010 Maclean’s article showed that students who fund their studies entirely on government loans are left to survive on an average of $7.50 a day—which, incidentally, is about the average cost of one meal bought at UTM.

Politicians also failed to address interest rate issues. For example, a student who takes 20 years to repay a loan at 7.5% interest will have repaid 193% of the loan. A student who repays it after 15 years will have repaid 167% of the loan. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, students with both government and private student loans graduate with an average of approximately $37,000 of debt for a four-year bachelor’s degree. Imagine the interest on a number like that.

In 2010, federal student debt increased by $948,087 a day. The Canada student loan debt is $15 billion. According to the Canada Student Loans Programs Actuarial Report, the federal government spent over $90.4 million on the administration of student loans for the 2009/10 academic year. The report also showed that the federal government took in $369.8 million in student loan interest that year.

The cost of tuition is daunting for most of us, and we are left to wonder whether postsecondary education is worth it all. But as students in the university with the most expensive tuition fees in Ontario, we must keep in mind the power of our voices and our actions. Joining a club or academic society lets us be surrounded by peers facing the same challenges as us, and sometimes that’s enough. At least it gives us a place to voice our concerns and maybe—hopefully—a place to instigate change.

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