Two sides of the educational coin

In the final issue of its diversity series, the Journal looks at economic issues among the student body

Aruna Zehra Boodram, ArtSci ’10, said the money she gets from scholarships and work study programs at Queen’s isn’t enough.
Aruna Zehra Boodram, ArtSci ’10, said the money she gets from scholarships and work study programs at Queen’s isn’t enough.

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You won’t find Aruna Zehra Boodram spending hundreds of dollars drinking on the weekend.

The ArtSci ’10 student is paying for her university education herself. In order to do so, she had to take a year off and work full-time.

“Economically, when you think about it, I would have never been able to afford it if I didn’t take a year off because my parents can’t afford for me to go to university,” she said. “I would have either been in extreme debt right now, in my first year, or I would not have come to school.”

Coming to Queen’s was different, Boodram said.

“It’s been really, really interesting coming here and seeing this dynamic,” she said. “I’ve learned to appreciate every single thing I have and it’s hard for me to see people here throwing away hundreds of dollars on clothes and parties and drinking and stuff. I just don’t get it.

“I feel like everything here is so expensive because people can afford it,” she said. “It’s just okay for people and they don’t question the prices because they can afford it.

“I pay for everything myself and because of that I feel like I appreciate everything a lot more.”

Boodram now works at two jobs—one of which is as an unpaid intern for the Social Issues Commission—while studying at Queen’s.

She has two really small scholarships: one a work-study scholarship for $1,750 and the other an entrance scholarship for $1,640.

“I was hoping to get more just because I still have to pay a lot for tuition, and books are incredibly expensive.

“I don’t think [that funding is] adequate for the amount of things you have to pay for at this school.” Boodram said the work study program is partially the reason she came here.

“Queen’s offered me a little bit more than everyone else just because of the work study,” she said. “It’s pretty cool; I’m working at the School of Music and they’re amazing there.” But because there’s a limit on the amount of hours Boodram can work, she’s only getting $1,750 for the year.

Boodram said it’s not possible to live off of the scholarships and work study.

“My intention when I came here was to work part-time,” she said. ”Technically I only really got $1,640 going towards my tuition and the $1,750 I’m getting in increments as I work. So I take the money out of my savings.”

Boodram, who is living at the Princess Towers apartment on Division Street, said she’s saving about $1,000 by not living in residence.

The expenses don’t end there, however.

Boodram said that because she doesn’t have a lot of extra money, it can be hard to participate in extracurricular activities such as Queen’s Model Parliament and Queen’s Model United Nations.

“I didn’t have the opportunity because I couldn’t afford it,” she said, adding that a lot of clubs charge fees which she just can’t afford.

“I know [clubs] need to rely on participants to get money,” she said. “Honestly, $10 to me [means] I could buy food.” Laura Kwak, ArtSci ’07 has incurred a $44,000 debt in her four years here.

“After I graduate that’s what I owe the government, so despite all this, all the bursaries and stuff, things like OSAP, you have to pay it back. That’s $44,000 for my four years,” she said. “It’s kind of scary. I feel like, what am I going to do to pay that off--especially if I want to do grad school.”

Kwak said if she does pursue a graduate degree, she may have to work for a year in between.

“I know what it’s like to worry about money and not wanting to be in debt. It’s just difficult when money has to be part of the decision-making in what you can and cannot do.”

Kwak received several grants and scholarships at Queen’s, including the Reaching for the Top scholarship and the millennium bursary. However, she was cut off from the Reaching for the Top scholarship after two years when her marks slipped.

“I fell below an 80 average so they cut me off,” she said. “And it’s tough, especially at Queen’s … it’s tough to get that kind of a mark.” Kwak said she feels tuition increases make university more of a luxury.

“If [universities have] become fully privatized and certain people can’t afford it, then it’s a real shame, because the real purpose of education has gotten lost,” she said. “I think it will result in a very large polarization of the classes.” Kwak said she has a hard time communicating to people where she’s coming from.

“The way that people will treat people who usually don’t have enough money, it’s almost like they can’t believe you,” she said. “I hate the American dream thing that everything is possible; sometimes it’s just not.

“I feel that sometimes people just don’t want to listen.”

* * *

Theresa Alm is the associate university registrar for student awards. If you’ve received any kind of financial aid, grants, or scholarship, chances are you’ve gone through her office.

Alm said about 50 per cent of the student population receives financial aid of some sort.

“I see that we are making progress, good progress, in providing funding to students, especially with the investment the University has made over the years in need-based student assistance,” Alm said.

“I think our actions have demonstrated our commitment to ensuring that those students with the greatest need and the fewest options for fully financing their university education are getting access to need based assistance.”

In 2005, 16.5 per cent of the undergraduate student body had a gross family income between $0 and $49,000; 33.9 per cent had a gross family income between $50,000 and $99,000; 27.0 per cent had a gross family income between $100,000 and 4149,000; 22.5 per cent had a gross family income of $150,000-plus.

Alm said the current aid system isn’t perfect.

Students apply for government assistance in April, but generally don’t find out what they’re receiving until June, Alm said.

“The application process and the decisions regarding OSAP needs to be available sooner.”

Alm added that students may be turning away from post-secondary education because debt may be a barrier.

“[In] 1994, the governments really went away from up-front grants and just gave out all loans, but now the governments are realizing what the impact of that has been and they’re investing in upfront grants,” she said.

Alm said an advantage to Queen’s is that many former students and friends of the University want to make a financial contribution.

“The University continues to have student financial assistance as a fundraising priority,” she said.

Queen’s status as a primarily residence-based school shouldn’t pose a problem to prospective students, Alm said.

“What we try to [communicate] to students is that we take your expenses into account when we do our need-based student assistance; we take into account the costs you will incur from living away from home, living in residences.”

Alm also said family dynamics, which are often connected to economic background, can affect prospective students’s decisions.

Alm said a student with family members who went to college or university is more likely to receive encouragement than one whose family members haven’t.

Alm said that when evaluating financial aid applications, the University takes into account all of a student’s expenses—including tuition, textbook fees and living expenses—and balance that against his or her financial resources, including any other awards or governmental assistance.

“We’re able to see what the difference between their expenses and their resources is. From there we’re able to determine the student’s need for resources,” she said. “Other factors might come into play when we consider which particular award the student’s going to receive.”

Some named bursaries include other criteria dealing with academic merit, extra-curricular activities or a student’s region of origin, whereas general bursaries are based solely on financial need

Alm said it’s hard to gauge the amount of funding international students get because each country has a different system.

“Once students are registered here at Queen’s then they’re eligible for bursaries assistance, work study as well as in core scholarships,” Alm said. “There are so many different countries and there are some that provide good funding options for their students and there are some that provide very limited or none.”

Alm said financial aid across Canada may run into a problem in 2009 when the funding for the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation dries up.

“The government made a significant impact when they introduced the program 10 years ago,” she said. “It is a vital component of the student assistance program and we certainly lobby for the continued investment of it.

“I would expect that in a very short period of time we should be hearing more from the federal government.”

* * *

Associate Vice-Principal and Dean of Student Affairs Jason Laker said people who are dead set on coming to Queen’s find ways to do so even when it means taking longer to do so.

“I don’t say that in a cavalier fashion,” he said. “As someone who paid for all three of my degrees and worked, I know that it’s very difficult. But I insisted on doing so, and I did. It doesn’t mean anybody can just do that. You can’t just wake up and just decide that; it’s very difficult.”

Laker said it’s important for people who go to university to be able to. “It’s not just simply what will Queen’s decide its tuition will be, you can’t answer that without considering what the province is doing or considering how the economy is for families,” he said.

Laker said there are some basic problems for students who want to attend university.

“There’s never enough funding, so we can start with that assumption. That universities are expensive, that students are often intimidated by the sticker price, that if they do go through the exercise of filling out financial aid forms, the awards, what they get, may not feel, for them, sufficient.”

Laker said more money needs to be put towards financial aid, but it isn’t as simple as that.

“I think that everyone who wants to go should be able to go,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean you can just say that and make it so. It requires a national commitment as well as a provincial one, and those commitments are important but so are safe streets and good health care.” Tuition isn’t the only factor students consider when going to university, Laker said.

“It’s more just sort of the combination of the expenses you’re going to incur, and you don’t have a lot of context--when you’re 17 or 18 years old, you’ve never had to deal with a mortgage or a car payment.”

Laker said reducing the financial burden on students is a University-wide effort.

“Everyone’s working really hard,” he said.

Laker thinks there is a variety of reasons why students choose not to come to Queen’s.

“It’s a combination of genuinely not having the money and not getting a big enough aid package, or simply misunderstanding or being intimidated by the financial aid application and not being able to prepare your statements and so forth, having difficulty getting that information or just feeling like, ‘Why do I bother?’ ”

Laker said he thinks many students don’t apply for financial aid because they don’t think they qualify.

“Just that assumption alone stops people from applying and people who work at financial aid and admissions find it hard, are struggling to get the message out,” he said. “Let’s suppose you fill it out and you get $1,000, maybe you don’t think much of it, but if I said I’d give you $1,000 to fill out the form, you’d think that was great.” Vice-Principal (Academic) Patrick Deane said the University needs to be accessible to all students who want to study here, and that the appropriate financial assistance needs to be made available.

“It needs to be available in a way that is straightforward to people who have a legitimate need for it,” he said. “I think Queen’s has a very, very strong capacity to provide financial support to students … [But] I think there’s always more needed. I think the University does very well with its existing system, but I think we’d all agree that it’s important to build that part of the University’s capacity.

“It always comes down to resources, and the University can only use the resources at its disposal.”

The way Queen’s is perceived by others is also a factor in determining who comes here, Deane said.

“Someone in their home community who hasn’t any direct experience with the place will in some sense be shaped by the way in which Queen’s is perceived, so you’ve got to get to the source of that,” he said.

“Every student that feels they could succeed here and could contribute here, that money should not be an issue: that message has to be stated repeatedly.

“Not just something that we’d say in the viewbook … It’s something everyone in the University needs to be saying to friends, to family; and people graduating need to get that word out.”

Deane said Queen’s isn’t alone in facing these issues of economic diversity.

“I don’t think Queen’s is at all unique; I think it’s certainly true to say that economic disparities in Canada are perhaps greater than we ever care to admit as a nation,” he said.

Deane said it’s important to confront economic issues, but this can be a touchy subject for many people.

“I know for sure that … a lot of people do feel very awkward talking about their financial capacity,” he said, adding that our culture places high value on financial success.

“So though someone may have great accomplishments, a lack of financial success may be perceived by some as a cause for shame.”

The extra-curricular activities that make Queen’s special can also be exclusionary, Deane said.

“One can well imagine that a student who has managed to find the resources to pay fees and to cover res costs would find it somewhat socially limiting if they don’t have money that would give them access to those kinds of activities,” he said. “Those are, as everyone would quickly point out, some of the things that make it a superb institution … what makes an institution special can, in fact, when looked at a different way, be an obstacle.”

Principal Karen Hitchcock said the University needs to look carefully at the balance between bursaries and loans to ensure that students aren’t being overloaded with debt.

Even if high tuition is balanced with high loans, these loans can saddle students with unwanted debt, Hitchcock said.

“We have to look at the balance of scholarships and bursaries and loans--make sure that loans don’t get to such a level that people don’t come because they don't want to incur that kind of debt.”

Ideally, Hitchcock said, the University would be equally accessible to people from different economic backgrounds.

“I think education needs to be open and it needs to be open through, really, very good programs of financial assistance,” she said. “Have we reached it? No, we haven’t reached it, but this is a critical part of one of the values at Queen’s.”

Part of the debate at hand is whether education is a private or a public good, Hitchcock said.

If it’s a private good, students should be help responsible for a large portion of their tuition.

“There are those, however, that say education is a public good and hence there should be more government contributions because the larger the educated population the richer and more vibrant and competitive the country is,” Hitchcock said.

* * *

Bruce Griffiths, director of residence and hospitality services, said Queen’s residences are more expensive compared to other school’s residences.

“We are on the high side,” said Griffiths. “We’ve never strived to be the cheapest.”

Griffiths said the main reason for this is that Queen’s makes it a priority to improve residences.

Griffiths said residence fees increase by more than the inflation rate, but the decision to raise fees is made by a budget committee with students on it.

“Inflation means you don’t improve anything,” Griffiths said. “Queen’s means quality and so you strive for quality.”

Griffiths added that the construction and architecture of Queen’s residences are a lot more appealing than temporary buildings other universities put up.

Griffiths added that there are numerous benefits to living in residences, including improved nutrition, safety, location, and orientation to the University.

Danyal Martin, University admissions co-ordinator, said recruitment plays a major part in attracting students from diverse economic backgrounds.

“We’re very, very clear about, in our presentations … the bursary program and the financial aid opportunities at the University,” she said.

“We wouldn’t look at demographics of a particular school and target that school for whatever reason,” she said. “It’s a little bit informal--there are a lot of factors that go into it; there’s no set list of criteria.”

Martin said high school presentations aren’t tailored to a certain demographic.

“Our message about financial aid opportunities and access to student services doesn’t change depending on the school we’re going to. If you were to go to what is typically considered a high-income private school, you’d still talk about needs-based assistance,” she said.

The University Experience Program, which targets students who could be the first in their family to attend university and brings them to Queen’s to introduce them to university life. This program can target students from lower economic backgrounds, Martin said, but that isn’t its primary motivation.

“I think it really ties into recruiting economic diversity,” Martin said. “It’s not necessarily saying that students that would be the first in their family to attend university are from a lower-socio-economic status, because that’s not always the case,” she said. “It’s not necessarily a program that recruits economic diversity; although it can, it’s not necessarily [the program’s] target,” she said. “I think it has the same goals of making sure students are comfortable with the process and really, really, really making sure students are aware of their resources. So I think that often, when students are applying to university, especially for students from a lower economic background, they may or may not be aware of the resources that are available to them.”

* * *

Eric De Domenico, ArtSci ’08 and a member of the Coalition for Accessible Education Kingston (CAEK) said Queen’s has a history of being pro-deregulation.

In 2002, then-Principal William Leggett proposed deregulating Arts and Science tuition, resulting in five students camping out in his office for 5 days in protest.

Domenico said although there is no immediate threat from deregulation, students need more of a say because there are serious issues at stake.

“Our starting point was deregulation and tuition and debt and things like that, that’s the immediate pressure and burden that a lot of students feel,” he said. “We’re alarmed by the increasing shift towards loans instead of government grants, which basically spells debt for many after graduation.”

AMS Social Issues Commissioner Allison Williams said it would be much better if we had more people coming from different economic brackets and a more equal number coming from each economic bracket.

“When you have any sort of economic diversity it breeds excellence,” she said.

Williams said a focus on ethnic and gender diversity “It’s kind of unfortunate that some of the other types of diversity, like gender diversity and economic diversity, have been pushed to the sidelines,” she said.

Williams said she thinks the reason Queen’s might attract less students from low socio-economic brackets is because it’s a residence-based school and comes with a set of traditions.

“I think Queen’s is one of the schools with a family tradition attached to it,” she said. “I think you see more kids of alumni coming here.”

--With files from Anna Mehler Paperny

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