Victoria Preston-Walker, Arts ’20, was prepared to graduate in the spring of 2020 with a degree in philosophy and psychology. In the wake of cuts to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), she won’t.
Following significant changes to post-secondary education policy in Ontario and reduced funding for OSAP, Queen’s students like Preston-Walker are left wondering how they’ll pay.
“Seeing a government that doesn’t really care is really disappointing,” Preston-Walker said in an interview with The Journal. “School is hard enough as it is. I should not have to be working two jobs in order to afford my education.”
In the last year, Premier Doug Ford’s government eliminated a program that guaranteed free tuition to students whose family income was below $50,000 and scrapped a previous provision which froze interest on student loan payments for six months following graduation.
But the change that received the most public attention was the $670-million funding cut OSAP announced in January.
Ford also changed the ratio of grants to loans that lower- and middle-income students could receive, meaning that many lower-income students will be forced to take significant loans to finance their education.
The changes of policy will have considerable effects on the financial realities of the 18 per cent of Queen’s students who had their tuition covered by grants under OSAP.
‘It’s really disappointing’
Preston-Walker’s situation is just one example of how cuts to OSAP affect access to post-secondary education for low-income students and families.
She is a first-generation post-secondary student. Her father is self-employed, and her mother works with the Toronto District School Board—another institution facing uncertainty from provincial cuts.
“They help us how they can,” she said. “But it’s mostly up to us.”
She also has a younger sister at Queen’s.
Preston-Walker receives $1,500 in Registered Education Savings Plan assistance from her parents for each school year but shoulders all other expenses, like tuition, books, rent, utilities, and food.
Last year, Preston-Walker worked two part-time jobs on top of a full course load to finance her education and living expenses.
Her already-strenuous financial situation was made graver when her OSAP estimate was cut significantly from last year.
She lost more than $4,000 in total aid, and most of her grants were converted to loans.
This extra financial pressure will force Preston-Walker to take this year off and work full-time. She expects that her original 2020 graduation date will have to be pushed back to 2021, or possibly even 2022.
A community responds
When Aimee McCurdy, Arts ‘20, first heard about Premier Ford’s 10 per cent tuition cut, she was thrilled—until she realized her discount would come at the expense of less fortunate students who rely on OSAP to finance their post-secondary education.
In an interview with The Journal, McCurdy explained her family is fortunate enough to afford tuition and costs of living.
“Education is already accessible to me,” she said. “The issue is that it’s not accessible to others.”
McCurdy approached her mother and asked if she could donate her 10 per cent tuition cut to an organization that would provide financial assistance to less fortunate students. Her mother approved, but McCurdy could find no such organization.
With the help of some fellow Queen’s students, she started her own.
Students For Students (SFS) is a non-partisan, student-run organization founded with the goal of making post-secondary education more financially accessible to Queen’s students.
To this end, SFS facilitates donations to the Queen’s General Bursary Fund, which issues non-repayable grants, available to students in all years of study who have a demonstrated financial need.
All donations through SFS go directly to the General Bursary Fund. According to the SFS website, the General Bursary calculates a student’s standard costs—tuition, books, living expenses, etc.—and their resources—OSAP, income, etc.—and tries to supplement the difference.
McCurdy reached out to the Queen’s Gift Services Department, who helped her establish a Students For Students bursary fund that would specifically apply to Ontario students receiving OSAP.
She pointed out that not only are students receiving fewer funds through OSAP, but the University itself is also losing roughly $31 million in revenue through Premier Ford’s 10 per cent tuition cut, resulting in less money for all expenses—including the General Bursary Fund.
SFS is calling on students fortunate enough to have all of their financial needs met to “use their privilege to make a difference” by donating their 10 per cent tuition discount to the General Bursary Fund.
“How are you supposed to do the best you can do, and prove how much you know, if you’re working all of the time?” she said.
McCurdy also emphasized that the group is strictly non-partisan.
“Of course this is a response to the OSAP cuts,” she said, “but we have members affiliated with the Conservative Party. It doesn’t matter what your party is.”
“This is a problem,” she said. “And I want to solve it.”
As for Preston-Walker, she and thousands of other students across the province will have to find a way to make ends meet. She’ll work full-time this year, and hopefully return next fall. But even then, she’ll be locked in a juggling act of financial and time management that could become all too common in Ontario.
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