Lend us a hand before we drown in debt

Tuition rates in Canada have been steadily increasing over the past decade. More accurately, it’s rising at four times the rate of inflation, according to the Consumer Price Index, and that figure is set to keep climbing

In Ontario alone, the average tuition rate for domestic students rose by 207%, from $1680 in 1990-91 to $5160 in 2006-07. And let’s not forget those pesky ancillary fees – extra charges that cover athletic programs, health services and student associations. When you factor in room and board, travel expenses and a myriad other unexpected costs that come with attending university, it’s no surprise that students are leaving a hefty trail of debt as they enter the workforce.

Studies have consistently shown that university graduates earn up to $1 million more, annually, compared to their peers without any post-secondary education. So a university degree or diploma is still an undeniable asset, but can Canadian students continue to bear the cost of acquiring one?

The answer may be no, since more and more of them are turning to student loans to finance their education. Unfortunately, a staggering number of Canadian graduates are defaulting on their debts while others struggle to repay them. As a result, RRSPs, home purchases, car purchases and other important asset acquisitions are put on hold – a move that is detrimental to the country’s economy in the long run.

It is the consensus of this editorial board that the federal and provincial government needs to step in and help shoulder some of the financial burden faced by Canadian students.

At the federal level, the government needs to provide more non-repayable financial assistance in the form of scholarships, bursaries and grants that can be acquired by students through co-ops and volunteer opportunities. Despite the Millennium Bursary Program introduced by the Chretien administration, the financial burden produced by post-secondary education costs has been progressively moved from the shoulders of the government to those of struggling students as well as private banks who are only out to make a profit. The Canadian government needs to step up and take charge of this situation once again.

A nationally recognized tuition rate can also help alleviate the fluctuation of tuition fees between provinces. At the moment, the difference in tuition fees between provinces is staggering. For example, a local student at McGill University will have to pay around $1,700 for a law program. What will a prospective law student have to pay at Queens University? Close to $10,000. Go ahead, do the math.

Alternatively, a tuition freeze can be as effective. Although tuition rates have also increased in Quebec, its tuition freeze has enabled Quebec students to consistently pay among the lowest fees in the country. Conversely, tuition rates rose by double digits in BC after a six-year tuition freeze was abolished in 2002-03.

Besides being more generous in dishing out the dollar, the government also needs to be more discerning towards those at the receiving end. Some students live independently of their parents’ large income, therefore requiring financial assistance in continuing their education. It goes to show that needy students don’t always come from low income families.

On a personal level, financial prudence on the part of parents and students themselves can go a long way. Surveys show that a lot of parents falsely assume that their children will qualify for government assistance, when in fact, only about half of all Canadian students do. Parents need to educate themselves early on about the cost of providing for a post-secondary education for their children. They should then pass on that knowledge to their children so they can plan their finances so as not to rely too heavily on outside financial assistance. As one editorial board member puts it: save early, reap the rewards later.

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