Tuition grant and student poverty

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With the deadline having just passed for students to apply for this term's 30 per cent tuition rebate, questions have been raised about how many eligible students actually applied, what ineligible students can do and how all post-secondary students can stay afloat financially.

Approximately 310,000 students in Ontario will be eligible to receive this tuition grant, about half of whom have OSAP. In order to get this grant, students must fall into a specific category: they must be within four years of graduating high school, be in good academic standing, have their parents' income fall under $160,000 annually and be in a full-time program that can be applied to directly from high school.

Part of the application process involves sending in your parents' social insurance number and part of their Canadian Income Tax Return, and if your parents aren't willing to provide you with that information, then you become one of the many people who are ineligible for the rebate.

According to the Liberal government, five out of six families with students will benefit from this grant, but what about all the students who don't fall within those guidelines?

“I think it is a good starting place for the government. It does reach quite a few students. They do need to make it broader. Right now, it kind of neglects some of the key areas,” said Kendra Sauder, VP Finance for the Fanshawe Student Union.

Here at Fanshawe College, a little over half of the students are classified as mature students, which is defined as any student not coming directly from high school, and that number is going up. With the way the economy has been going, and with record-high unemployment rates, many people are returning to college or university for continuing education or second career training.

The tuition rebate gives students back 30 per cent of the average university or college tuition each year, but what exactly is the average? According to ontariocolleges.ca, the average university tuition is $6,100 and the average college diploma tuition is $2,400. What this means is that each year, eligible university students will receive $1,600 and college students will get $730.

Typically, the majority of university students pay the same amount for tuition, but that is not the case at colleges. The reality is that, though some programs do cost around $2,400, there are many programs that cost much, much more. Take, for instance, the Dental Hygiene program at Fanshawe, where students are paying $6,500 per term for a six-term program. If it's a 30 per cent tuition rebate, should they not be getting $3,900 per year?

“That's something that definitely needs to be looked at. It shouldn't be a prorated rate. I think that's the biggest issue we've had with our students; they're upset,” said Veronica Barahona, FSU President.

Barahona also showed concern about the number of students who are confused about the grant because of the government's lack of clear information. “Restrictions are one thing, but not making the information accessible to students right away — I think students had to dig for it. The more that you had to dig, the more information you found out, the more people weren't eligible,” said Barahona.

It seems as though the Liberal government used the 30 per cent tuition rebate to help lock in an election win, but as the specific qualifications for the grant were released to the public, many students were left disappointed.

The tuition grant is expected to cost the provincial government $423 million annually.

Some of that money that is being redirected from three previous programs: the Ontario Trust for Student Support, the Textbook and Technology Grant and the Queen Elizabeth II Aiming for the Top Scholarship.

The Canadian Federation of Students submitted a 40,000-signature petition to the legislature asking that this money be used to pay for a 13 per cent tuition cut for all students, instead of the 30 per cent for some.

For the seventh year in a row, tuition in Ontario has increased by five per cent, leaving Ontario with the highest fees in Canada. “Ontario has some of the lowest per-student funding out of all the provinces when it comes to higher education. The poverty line for groceries is approximately $35 (per week). Most students that I talk to are living off of $25 a week,” said Sauder.

So what options are left for those students who aren't getting the 30 per cent tuition grant, or even for those who are, but are still struggling financially?

Let's say a student works full-time earning minimum wage over the 17-week summer. They would make a little under $7,000 before taxes and living expenses. Even with working part-time during the year, many students must resort to student loans and OSAP in order to afford tuition, rent, books and supplies, groceries, bills, etc. The list goes on.

In Ontario, students are graduating with an average of $20,000 in debt. Here in London, the unemployment rate for people aged 15 to 24 is hovering around 20 per cent. With the way things are going, it will take years for recent grads to pay off their student loans, which means it's taking longer for them to buy houses and invest in retirement. The financial struggle for students creates a domino effect that is influencing their entire lives.

The fear of debt and financial struggle is cited as a big factor in why some people choose not to pursue post-secondary education. “The tuition grant was designed to help students transition from secondary school to post-secondary. There is a large number of under-represented students — which would be a first-generation or a student who comes from a low-income family, a student with a disability, etc. — that typically do not attend — as many who could attend don't attend,” said Jim Robeson, Director of Advocacy at the College Student Alliance.

According to Statistics Canada's Youth In Transition Survey, of those students who dropped out of their post-secondary program, 36 per cent cited financial reasons. Pursuing higher education should not be so difficult financially that students are unable to finish their program.

Student poverty is a legitimate concern on Fanshawe's campus, and it has been for a while. “We certainly see a lot of students in our counselling role here who are having financial challenges. That's not new this year; that's been an ongoing issue for students over time,” said Lois Wey, Manager of Counselling and Accessibility Services at Fanshawe. “We have students who have been depending on parents for their support and then parents have lost jobs and not been able to support them in the same way,” she added.

Suddenly students who had their parents' support are left trying to figure out how to support themselves. Many who were originally ineligible for OSAP now are, and are trying to navigate the application process. Some just need a little money to tide them over, but are unaware of their options.

There is a problem with awareness at Fanshawe; many students don't know how to apply for bursaries or awards and scholarships. In fact, they might not even know that that's an option for them. “You just have to dig for it. Money doesn't just land in your lap, unfortunately. You have to work for it,” said Barahona. But should it be that difficult for students to get financial assistance?

When I was a student here at Fanshawe College, I was completely unaware of how to apply for bursaries or awards and scholarships. I knew they existed, but, like many other students, I assumed that I would not qualify, when the reality is that many people who think they won't get financial assistant have a much better chance of receiving assistance than they think.

Financial Aid here at Fanshawe has been working to get the message out to students about bursaries, as has the FSU, but I'm not so sure it's working. There are many avenues for students to get financial assistance, and for the most part, that fact has somehow remained one of the college's best-kept secrets.

Students can make use of the Sharing Shop at Fanshawe for items such as food and supplies, and can talk to Kendra Sauder (fsufinance@fanshawec.ca) or Lois Wey (lwey@fanshawec.ca) if they are concerned or are struggling with their finances.

Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.