Paying for a fancy piece of paper?

Your minimum registration payment is due August 15. A thousand bucks, and $3,500 if you live in residence. It’s a hefty sum, and it’s depressing to think that every year it covers a smaller and smaller fraction of what you’ll be shelling out for your eight months of mind expansion.

A 2004 University of Guelph presidential task force on accessibility to university education pointed out that a combination of government cuts and fee hikes means Ontario schools now pull in close to 45 per cent of operating revenue from tuition fees. This is well above the province’s stated goal of 35 per cent—a number some people believe is still too high.

Others aren’t so sure. The common argument is that debt alone is not an indicator of access: if students view education as an investment, what matters is their return on that investment. In other words, who cares if students go into debt? If they can graduate, find employment, and earn that money back, there’s no problem, and the numbers show that although inflation-adjusted debt levels have more than doubled in the last 15 years, more than 90 per cent of students are still able to pay off their government loans.

But what are they really getting out of their time at university? They may escape with a fancy piece of paper that says “diploma,” and for many, that’s good enough. But what about the intangible growth experiences? The four years spent studying in a new city or the summers spent traveling? Are university costs affecting that experience? As of right now, what’s in store for the Class of 2008?

Last year’s Statistics Canada Postsecondary Education Participation Survey figures drew attention to the emerging “middle-class loan squeeze”—the mounting evidence that a combination of rising tuition fees and frozen loan eligibility requirements has made it tougher and tougher for students from middle-class backgrounds to pay for their education. Such students often fall into a grey area between being considered in financial need and actually being able to finance their schooling, and surveys have suggested their participation rates are falling.

Teresa Alm, associate University registrar (student awards), said Queen’s does try to rectify this Catch-22.

“We recognize that there are students who are in financial need beyond those who can access OSAP [Ontario government loans],” she said. “They may not qualify for government loans, but get debt funding from other sources, such as lines of credit.” These students are often eligible for Queen’s student aid, Alm said.

But although low-income students’ participation rates may be rising, those students don’t have an easy ride either—they’re eligible for loans, but then they have to pay them back.

The Guelph task force claimed the situation isn’t as dire as it sometimes seems, and the oft-cited $25,000-plus average debt per grad is a myth. The misperception is due to the wide range of methodology used to measure debt—some surveys report debt per student, while others report only debt per student who incurs it.

Nonetheless, the numbers are a little scary. The task force found that the 40 to 60 per cent of Canadian students who graduate in debt owe their creditors an average of $21,200—almost double the average debt in 1990, even when adjusted for inflation. This figure varies widely by program of study and by province, but Ontario’s figure, $22,700, is the highest.

So in the meantime, while the government, school administrators and the public wrangle over funding, students seek that funding from a variety of sources, such as job savings, parental help, private loans, lines of credit or even credit cards.

At Queen’s last year, almost 4,000 students received government loans and grants averaging $8,500 each, many of them supplementing this funding with bursaries and awards—Queen’s student financial assistance has doubled in the past five years.

The University of Guelph reports a similar story in its annual survey of incoming students. Over the past decade, some indicators of financial security at that university have remained the same: the proportion of students who work full- or part-time during the year is stable, as is the percentage who pay for school through summer savings only.

However, more students are also receiving financial support from their parents and applying for student loans, and more say that the availability of scholarships is a major factor in choosing a university.

Queen’s has no data on the number of students who work in the summer or during the year, but does keep stats on the number of students who apply for and use the Work Study Program. The 25-year-old program, which was the first of its kind in the province, is administered by Career Services and Student Awards and provides employment for students in financial need.

Student Awards records an unsteady upward trend in the number of students accepted to work under the program, from 454 in 1999-2000 to 638 in 2002-2003, Alm said. The number of applications has also been rising, she added, which could be due either to greater need or to a growing awareness of the program.

More drastic evidence that for many students, the bottom has fallen out comes from Campus Hunger Count 2004, which tracked the growth and use of food banks on Canadian university campuses. There are now 51, most of which opened in the 1990s—a response, their directors say, to the fallout from cuts to federal health and education transfer payments to provinces. Those food banks served more than 3,100 clients in March 2004 alone.

But students don’t have to be going hungry to be missing out on some of the unique aspects of a university education. The growth of the knowledge economy and the steady rise in tuition have propagated the attitude that a degree is simply a ticket to a job. But to think so may be selling the university experience short.

For many students, particularly at residential universities like Queen’s, pursuing education away from home represents an opportunity for personal growth. National average participation rates alone, therefore, may not tell the whole story. A 2002 StatsCan paper, for example, looked at the correlation between university participation rates, family income and distance to the nearest university. It found that high school students from the top third of income groups are six times more likely than students from the bottom third to pursue a degree if they don’t live within commuting distance of a university.

Students from the bottom third are also more than four times more likely to go to university if they live within commuting distance than if they don’t. None of this is surprising, given the cost difference: StatsCan also found that university students living at home spend about $4,500 on non-educational expenses, while those living away from home spend more than $8,000.

And what about the stereotypical summer spent backpacking across Europe or the third year on exchange? Is this as popular an option as it used to be?

Figures from the Arts and Science International Programs Office say actually, yes, it is. The number of students who go on exchange each year has risen 130 per cent since 1995-96, and the number of students studying abroad under letters of permission has also been increasing. Exchange agreements between schools mean students pay tuition at their home university and need only worry about travel and often steeper living costs, while other study abroad opportunities often require higher tuition.

Alm said the Student Awards office recognizes the value of international experience and has made an effort to fund it.

“We do have needs-based student assistance specifically targeted for exchanges and study abroad,” Alm said. “Those options aren’t just open to those who can afford it.”

But according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, 70 per cent of Canadian students who reported barriers to study abroad opportunities cited financial reasons as their main obstacle, well ahead of other factors such as lack of interest, faculty support or language skills.

So the effects of costs on exchanges, like on participation rates, debt and part-time work, are hard to answer fully. Many of the relevant factors aren’t even quantifiable. As the Guelph task force pointed out, better-educated parents tend to make more money, and children from wealthier families are more likely to go to university. But apart from being more easily able to pay for their children’s studies, educated parents may also be more likely to raise their children to value and pursue higher education. How much is each of these two independent variables at work in the StatsCan figures?

Despite the debate over high costs and public funding, individual departments are striving to make students’ experiences as smooth as possible: more student aid and more agreements that keep exchange costs down. So while we’re doling out our minimum registration payments and hollering about costs, these opportunities are still there. Will we take advantage of them?

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