In a couple of weeks, Statistics Canada will publish its annual Tuition and Living Accommodation Cost (TLAC) survey, which is an annual excuse to allow the usual suspects to complain about tuition fees. But sticker price is only part of the equation: while governments and institutions ask students to pay for part of the educational costs, they also find ways to lessen the burden through subsidies like grants, loan remission, and tax expenditures. And Statscan never bothers to count that stuff.
Today, we at HESA are releasing a publication called The Many Prices of Knowledge: How Tuition and Subsidies Interact in Canadian Higher Education. Unlike any previous publication, it looks not just at a single sticker price, but rather at the many different possible prices that students face depending on their situation. We take ten student cases (e.g. first-year dependent student in college, family income = $80,000; married university student, spousal income = $40,000; etc.), and we examine how much each student would be able to receive in grants, tax credits, and loan remission in each of the ten provinces. It thus allows us to compare up-front net tuition (i.e. tuition minus grants) and all-inclusive net tuition (i.e. tuition minus all subsidies) not just across provinces, but also across different students within a single province.
- On average, a first-year, first-time student attending university direct from high-school, with a family income of $40,000 or less receives $63 more in subsidies than they pay in tuition, after all subsidies – including graduate rebates – are accounted for (i.e. they pay net zero tuition on an all-inclusive basis). If they attend college, they receive roughly $1,880 more in subsidies than they pay in tuition (i.e. -$1800 tuition);
- A first-year, first-time student attending university from a family with $40K in Quebec, after all government subsidies, pays -$393 in all-inclusive net tuition. In Ontario, the same student pays -$200. But if we were to include institutional aid, the student in Ontario would likely be the one better off, since students in Ontario with entering averages over 80% regularly get $1,000 entrance awards, while students in Quebec tend not to. For some students at least, Ontario is cheaper than Quebec;
- On average, college students who are also single parents receive something on the order of $11,000 in non-repayable aid – that is, about $8,500 over and above the cost of tuition. In effect, it seems to be the policy of nearly all Canadian governments to provide single parents with tuition plus the cost of raising kids in non-repayable aid, leaving the student to borrow only for his/her own living costs.
The upshot of the study is that Canada’s student aid system is indeed generous: in none of our case studies did we find a student who ended up paying more than 62% of the sticker price of tuition when all was said and done, and most paid far less. But if that’s the case, why are complaints about tuition so rife?
Two reasons, basically. First, Canada’s aid system may be generous, but it is also opaque. We don’t communicate net prices effectively to students because institutions, the provinces, and Ottawa each want to get credit for their own contributions. If you stacked all the student aid up in a comprehensible single pile, no one would get credit. And we can’t have that.
The second reason is that Canada only provides about a third of its total grant aid at the point where students pay tuition fees. Nearly all the rest, stupidly, arrives at the end of a year of studies. More on that tomorrow.