Evaluating student aid

Financial aid will lose $350 million with expiration of federal Millennium Scholarship

Liam Hayes, ArtSci ’09, racked up the scholarships to help him pay for university.

He received a one-year Millennium Scholarship and a fouryear chancellor scholarship from the University, as well as a Miller Thompson scholarship, a Senator’s Alumni scholarship, a Catholic School Board Award and $4,000 in bursaries from OSAP.

“It took a lot of the pressure off- I didn’t have to worry about any money at all,” he said, adding that
without resources such as these, many students would have to rule out the option of post-secondary education altogether.

In five years, students might not be afforded the same opportunities. The cancelling of the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, set to distribute the last of its endowment in 2009, is one of the four threats to student aid listed in a recent study that suggests Canada may be looking at financial aid the wrong way. Established in 1998 by the federal government, the foundation was mandated to only continue until 2009. Their grant program targets lowincome families and is based on different criteria than the original need-based grants. “Some people wouldn’t be able to go without it, and everyone deserves a chance to go,” he said.

“Money’s always tight ... no one really has too much money.” Once the Millennium Scholarship is gone, Hayes said, many students needing financial assistance to pay for university will be out of luck.

“The amount of scholarships they give out, that’s really going to hurt,” he said. “[The Millennium Scholarship] has opened a door for me. I think taking it away will close that exact same door.”

Foundation researcher Noel Baldwin said need-based grants are given based on the net price paid by each student. Between its merit-based grants and the new low-incomespecific grants, the foundation gives out a total of $350 million per year.

Families with a yearly income of less than $35,000, often do not qualify for these grants because of the choices they make in planning their post-secondary education, Baldwin said.

For example, students from these families will rarely leave home and are less likely to choose expensive programs like engineering, Baldwin said.

Between the foundation and the provincial government, $24 million was spent last year in Ontario on low-income bursaries. With the program becoming fully functional starting this fall, that number will go
up, said Baldwin. But with the program facing its end in only three years, Baldwin said the foundation’s greatest concern is the $350 million hole the loss of the scholarships would leave.

“A whole lot of planning needs to happen before the foundation closes shop,” he said. “The money has to be replaced and it remains to be seen what governments are going to do.”

Baldwin also said that even if the money is replaced in full, there is no way to ensure it will be distributed in the same way. This may mean the relief offered to low-income families is short-lived.

The study on the efficiency of the current financial aid system, entitled “The Student Aid Time-bomb,” is an independent project by institute researchers Sean Junor and Alex Usher.

Usher said the amount of money being put into the system is a positive thing, but that he believes the money is being wasted by politicians looking to buy middle-class votes.

A universal method of student aid allows for all families, regardless of their economic status, to save on the cost of post-secondary education equally.

According to Junor and Usher, sacrificing grants to allow tuition reductions and freezes is “Robin Hood in reverse”: the money that would be going to support lowincome families is spent instead on keeping fees low for all demographics, including those who can easily afford higher fees.

“It’s ridiculous that policymakers are saying that they can’t do anything for low-income families without doing it for high-income families,” Usher said. The study claims that the solution is not tax credits and tuition freezes, but tuition increases to boost revenue that can be directed to those who need it most.

The report has succeeded in garnering the attention of Canadian organizations, but the feedback is
not all positive. The Canadian Federation of Students in particular is unhappy with the message that the study is sending, calling it alarmist and misleading.

Jesse Greener, the Ontario branch’s chairperson, said the report leads the public to believe that the current system of student aid is less sustainable than it actually is. Greener said instead of alleviating some of the debt students are facing, raising tuition prices actually accomplishes the opposite: taking the extra money from tuition and putting it towards student aid only forces more students to rely on loans and grants to pay for their education.

“Beefing up student aid largely translates into getting more into debt,” he said.

Associate University Registrar (Student Awards) Theresa Alm said the University has adjusted to budget changes in the past and will continue to do so. She also said the University has been working for years to gear its financial aid to low-income families.

The criteria reviewed for needbased aid includes family income, parental contributions, as well as the
specific program in which each student is enrolled. Alm said this puts the most money toward helping low-income students while still subsidizing middleincome students.

“We want to ensure that the students with the fewest options are given the most support,” she said. To ensure student aid policies are growing and changing, Alm said discussions are held on all levels from the deans, to the Board of Trustees, to the public, with Principal Hitchcock holding town meetings throughout the past school year. “We are constantly reviewing our program and determining where immediate financial reserves are and where the funds are best directed,” Alm said.

She added that increases in government funding have allowed the university to channel more aid to
lower income students, helping to fill the gaps left by OSAP. Queen’s distributes approximately $20
million per year, over 99 per cent of which is non-repayable. Alm said that as tuition rises, Queen’s has increased this number several times over the years to help offset costs. Alm said the University has also been able to keep fees relatively stable from year to year even though costs have been steadily rising. Despite the efforts to support low-income families, Alm said achieving true accessibility is an ongoing challenge. “There are students who aren’t going [to university] because they can’t conceive of paying the fees.”

–With files from Anna Mehler Paperny

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