Readers may remember that about this time last year, I was giving the Government of New Brunswick a bit of stick for a botched student aid roll-out. Today I am pleased to give credit where it is due, and congratulate the folks in Fredericton for fixing the problem and developing a much better student aid system.
Let’s go back 12 months to pick up the story. In February 2016, the Ontario government had come up with a fabulous new system which basically made a promise of grants equal to or greater than average tuition for students from low to mid-family incomes. At family incomes above that, students received a declining amount of money out to about $110,000 at which point the grant flattens to a little under $2,000 (a remnant of the government’s ludicrous “30% tuition rebate” from 2011) and then falls to zero a little over $160,000. With a bit of clumsiness this eventually, sort of, got branded as “free tuition for low- and middle-income students, which it isn’t, quite, but close enough for advertising. Cue what is seen to be a major policy success.
It was such a success that New Brunswick decided to copy it later last spring. Like Ontario, they built on the change to Canada Student Grants and eliminated some of their own tax credits (including the egregiously wasteful graduate tax rebate) to fund a “Tuition Access Bursary”, which guaranteed a grant equal to tuition (up to a maximum of $10,000, which was more generous than Ontario) for students from families making under $60,000. Which is great, right? Well, yes, except the problem is, there was no phase-out for the grant. At $59,999 in family income, there you were raking in $6500 or so in grants and at $60,001 you got $1200 in grants (the federal middle-income grant) and that’s not great social policy. Making it worse was the fact that families in that $60K to $70K would also be losing a lot of money in tax credits that both the federal and provincial governments were ending in order to pay for this new benefit; my back-of-the envelope calculation was that in this range, parents were going to be about $1,200 worse off as a result of the change.
In any case, because I and others pointed out this flaw, the government after a brief period of defensive blustering decided it was best to go back to the drawing board and revisit the formula. They did so and last week came up with a new “Tuition Relief for the Middle Class”, which basically involved taking a sliding declining scale of grants for families earning between $60-100,000 onto the existing Tuition Access Bursary (which has been renamed the “Free Tuition Program”). Arguably, the New Brunswick program is now somewhat better than the Ontario program because 1) it’s not just “grants up to “average” tuition”, a caveat which I suspect is going to leave a lot of people slightly cheesed off when the program starts and 2) It still manages not to subsidize people up to that absurdly high $160K + threshold that Ontario insists on maintaining. Ontario gets points for making its aid portable, though – New Brunswick’s program is only available to students who study in-province, which I think is a shame.
The announcement – which you know, hey guys, it’s a good news story! – was marred somewhat by some media sniping about how the number of beneficiaries is about 30% short of what was estimated last year. To me this is neither here nor there: government cost estimates on year 1 of a new program are often a matter of throwing numbers at a dartboard. The good news is that there is still money to either raise the entry threshold for the Free Tuition Program or (better still) expand the debt relief program or top up the amount of money available to high-need mature students and parents through the New Brunswick Bursary Program.
Now, all we need for this to be perfect is for New Brunswick to come up with a smart, credible monitoring program to examine the effects of these changes on participation over the next few years.
(New Brunswick folk: that’s on the way, right guys? Right? Well, you know where to find me if you need a hand…)
Anyways, as I say, credit where it is due. Well done, New Brunswick.