Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: student aid

May 26

Tuition Fees and Inequality

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it’s unfair that some people graduate with debt, and others don’t.  The ones that do tend to have started off poorer to begin with.  And so instead of being a means of social mobility, tuition ends up being a means of perpetuating it – the ones who start off poorer end up poorer.  That’s bad, and that’s why we should have no tuition.  Eliminate tuition and you eliminate inequality.

Let’s take this one-by-one.

First of all, eliminating tuition doesn’t eliminate debt.  Sweden, famously, has both free tuition and significant debt.

Second of all, while the notion that the poor are the ones with debt is mostly true, it’s not entirely so.  Some well-off kids borrow – usually in their fifth year when their parents’ income no longer counts against them in the need assessment process.  And some poorer kids get through without loans by working and living at home.

But the most important of all is a point articulated by the American writer Matt Bruenig in this article: eliminating tuition does not, in any way, change inequality between rich and poor students.  To a large degree, the kids who graduate without debt do so because their parents pay their bills.  If you make tuition free, it reduces (but does not eliminate) the need to borrow; it also means that wealthier parents get to save their money.  The gap between rich parents and poor parents is not made narrower: they are both saving the same amount of money.  And the idea that the gap between graduates is made narrower depends entirely on the notion that rich parents will look at all that money they’re saving and not pass it on to their kids.

Does anyone really believe that?  Does anyone really believe that if rich parents had more money they’d pass less of it on to their kids?  No?  Then your argument relating tuition to the perpetuation of inequality is wrong.

Bruenig makes the argument – correctly – that if you are going to base your tuition policy around the idea that it should serve to reduce inequality (something many sensible people would think is nuts), then the only way to do that is by charging sharply progressive fees.  Ask the kids from poorer families to pay little or nothing, and ask the kids from wealthier families to pay more.  And in practice the way you do that is by charging high fees and off-setting it with need-based grants.

Anything else fails the inequality-reduction test, simple as that.

May 21

Rationalizing Regressive Subsidies

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog analysing the distributional effects of tuition reductions vs. targeted grants, and concluded that the latter was far more progressive in their impact than the former.  In response, Carleton professor Nick Falvo wrote a piece on OCUFA’s Academic Matters website saying that I was “wrong about tuition”.  Because some of his arguments are interesting – to his credit, he didn’t reach for the appalling argument that a regressive distribution of benefits is OK because the rich pay more taxes – I thought I would take some space here to respond.

Although Falvo claims to be demonstrating that my thesis about regressivness is wrong, at no point does he actually address the distribution issue.  Rather, he essentially concedes this point, and then make a series of arguments about why tuition reduction is preferable to targeted grants despite their regressiveness.

Falvo makes five separate arguments about the superiority of a free-tuition arrangement over a tuition-plus-grant arrangement.  The first is that free tuition is more “efficient” than grants because the administration costs are lower. But this is silly.  In fact, SFA administration costs in Canada run about five cents on the dollar.  Why you’d spend billions of dollars on one type of subsidy, just to save a few tens of millions by getting rid of the few hundred public servants who administer the existing programs, is a bit beyond me.

The second argument  is, essentially, that grants don’t work because sometimes tuition rises faster than grants.  But the more efficient solution to this – were this indeed a problem – would of course be to spend more on grants, not decrease tuition.

His third and fourth arguments are mutually contradictory.  One is that targeted subsidies create disincentives to work (the “welfare wall” argument); the other is that targeted grants are too complicated to understand, and that free tuition is more effective because it is easier to understand than a fees-plus-aid strategy.  The first implies that families have quite a good understanding about how subsidies work, and adjust their behaviour accordingly; the second implies that they don’t.  My view is that the second theory is more likely to be the correct one.  Sticker prices are simpler to understand than net prices.  The question really is whether this actually matters.  How much damage does poor communication actually do to access?  Is it sufficiently bad that we should spend an extra couple of billion on it?  For that to be the case, one would need to prove not simply that some people are deterred by financial barriers (undoubtedly true), but that they are deterred in large numbers because of their misunderstanding of extant financial incentives.  On the basis of existing evidence, I’d guess that’s not the case.

Falvo’s final point is that free tuition is a more politically saleable proposition than grants – because more people will benefit, it is easier to create and maintain voting coalitions in favour of it.  Even if that’s true, it is an appalling argument.  Stephen Harper certainly sold the Universal Child Care Benefit much easier than Paul Martin sold the (targeted) expansion of daycare spaces, but that doesn’t make it good public policy.

The argument that the only way, politically, to get a dollar to the youth from the poorest quartile is to give three dollars to youth from the richest quartile is an awfully convenient one… if you’re from the top quartile.  I simply don’t believe we have to settle for a system where the only way to get money to the needy is to buy-off the rich.  And I remain completely baffled why people who claim to be progressive actively promote such an idea.

May 09

Who’s Progressive?

To the extent that finances act as a barrier to higher education, they are an obstacle to those without resources – that is, those who tend to come from lower-income backgrounds.  It is, therefore, simply common sense that if you want to relieve financial barriers, you concentrate resources among those with the fewest means.

Except, it doesn’t seem to be common sense among many of those who consider themselves “progressive” in Canada.  “Progressives”, for reasons that are almost incomprehensible, prefer solutions that give far more money to students from high-SES backgrounds.  Why?  Good question.

The best way to focus aid is to use grants based on income (or, second best, on assessed need).  By using income-targeting, you can get money to exactly who you want.  Say you have $100M that you want to put towards affordability.  Want to give all of it to students in the lowest income quartile?  You can do that.  Split it between the bottom two income quartiles? You can do that, too.  Or maybe spread it out a little more thinly so that it cuts out gradually – say, 60% to bottom income quartile, 30% second quartile, 10% third quartile?  You can do that, too.  Grants make many different types of investments possible.

Figure 1: Some Possible Distributions of Grants Across Income Quartiles














But some people despise this idea.  Some people say things like, “lower tuition is the best form of student aid”.  Implicitly, because people from richer families are likelier to attend post-secondary education, the distribution of $100 million, if delivered in the form of a tuition cut, looks like this:

Figure 2: Distribution of Benefits of a Tuition Reduction, by Income Quartile














That doesn’t actually look so good compared to a grant, does it?  In fact, it’s even worse than it seems.  That’s because a $100 million reduction in tuition ends up affecting other types of aid as well.  For every dollar of tuition reduced, students and their families lose 21-28 cents (depending on the province) in tax credits.  And, to the extent that anyone has provincial need-based grants (as opposed to the mainly income-based federal ones), a dollar less in tuition means a dollar less in need, which in many cases means a dollar less in grant.  Thus, for high-need students (which is not quite the same thing as low-income students, though there is some overlap), a dollar less in tuition can mean $1.25 less in non-repayable aid.  That is to say, they are worse off after the tuition reduction than they were before.  But the rich kids who had no need of student aid to begin with?  They’re better off by $0.75.

All told then, if you spend $100 million to reduce tuition, the spread of benefits looks something like this:

Figure 3: Distribution of Benefits of a $100 Million Tuition Reduction, by Income Quartile, in Millions














Of the $100 million in reduced tuition, $42 million gets recouped by one level of government or another, either through reduced tuition tax credits or reduced grants.  Of the remainder, only 13% goes to the poorest quartile, and only 38% goes to the bottom half.

So, ask yourself: who’s progressive?  The folks who want to give 50, 60, or 100% of their money to kids from the bottom income quartile?  Or the folks who want to give almost three times as much to the top quartile as to the bottom?

May 01

Scare Tactics

So, my blog posts on Net Zero Tuition got some attention last week, not least because Margaret Wente took up the cudgels on the issue.  The reaction to it was disheartening to say the least.

From ordinary students and recent graduates, the response was basically some variant of the “n of one” reaction: “I pay attention, I have debt; therefore, it is not be possible that, across the whole, non-repayable aid had doubled, or that this country spends as much on non-repayable aid as it collects in tuition”.

This is what I call Solipsistic Social Science (SSS): when confronted with evidence that conflicts with previous beliefs, the reaction is not curiosity (e.g. “how is that possible”? Or, “why might that be”? Rather, it provokes outright denial: “if it’s not happening to me, it can’t be happening at all”.  Understandable? Maybe.  But it’s a bit sad coming from people with post-secondary education, though. Were I in a cattier mood, I’d suggest it’s a kind of disgraceful that PSE graduates might suffer from it, and it reflects badly on institutions themselves.

The more interesting reaction, though, came from “official” PSE groups, where the “but whaddabout” reaction reigned supreme.  Aid dispensed as high as tuition collected?  But whaddabout living expenses?  Large numbers of students receiving more in aid than they pay in tuition?  But whaddabout “lived experiences of struggling students”?

Now, some of those points are valid (and indeed I raised some of these myself back here).  But the utter inability of everyone to even acknowledge the data existence was kind of incredible.  OCUFA’s dismissed Margaret Wente’s article as being “tone-deaf”.  You see, it doesn’t actually matter whether everything she said was factual or not, the problem was “tone”.  And the only acceptable tone, apparently, is CRISIS.  The fact that government aid has risen significantly in real dollars over the past 15 years, or that rises in student aid since 1999 have more than kept pace with real increases in tuition, or that since 1999, student debt has been flat, and student debt burdens (that is, the percentage of average after-tax income used to repay educational debt) have fallen by a third?  That’s all “ideological”.

Well, you know what?  The sector needs to grow the hell up.  The reliance on perpetual crises isn’t just childish – it’s dishonest.  A decade worth of good policy-making on student aid means that higher tuition – which has helped institutional finances immeasurably – haven’t had many negative consequences.  That’s something to celebrate, but instead Canadian PSE groups try to pretend it never happened because they prefer the crisis narrative.

I get that people think that political traction is hard to obtain in the absence of a crisis.  But no matter  how worthy the cause, it’s not alright to pretend to knowingly ignore the truth in the attempt to drum up support.  Especially in higher education.  Our sector is supposed to be about truth, honesty, and rigour.  Ignoring those rules in the hunt for more money is unconscionable, and in the long run does more damage than good.

April 28

Mobility Responsibilities

Saying that we should remove barriers to student mobility sounds like a motherhood issue.  But scratch a little deeper, and you’ll see that, in fact, Canadians are pretty equivocal on the concept.

For starters, while everyone loves inbound mobility (come here!  It’s a great place!), there’s a pretty deep streak of protectionism in Canadian provincial governments on the issue of outbound mobility.  The sentiment of “let’s keep our kids at home” runs deep in many parts of the country.  It wasn’t until the advent of the Millennium Scholarship Foundation that all student aid programs became portable in most provinces (though Quebec maintains a policy of not funding students to go out of the province, unless the program is not offered in the province, “and it is in the interest of the Quebec collectivity”.  Yes, really).

But whose responsibility is mobility in the first place?  In Europe, with respect to tuition and student aid, it’s the receiving country who bears the cost – no matter where they’re from, students pay whatever the locals do, and have access to whatever student aid program the locals provide.  In Canada, our default assumption is that host provinces are supposed charge equal tuition to all Canadians regardless of their place of origin, but the responsibility for mobility on student aid lies with the sending province.  One can move from Nova Scotia to Manitoba and pay Manitoba rates of tuition, but one still has to rely on Nova Scotia Student Aid.

But there are exceptions.  The most clear-cut is Quebec’s insistence on charging tuition fees to out-of-province students.  Less clear-cut (but still clearly discriminatory), are the cases of Nova Scotia and Ontario.  The former provides tuition rebates to Nova Scotia students, but not to other Canadians.  Ontario has a variety of subsidies that are only available to Ontario students attending Ontario institutions (the tuition tax rebate is one, as are the many provincially-mandated, institutionally-managed access funds – funded through a “tax” on tuition paid by Ontarians and non-Ontarians alike).  These are all anti-mobility measures: they effectively create a two-tier tuition policy within a province, and (in Ontario’s case at least) provide extra subsidies to students who chose not to leave.

Interestingly, while Quebec’s two-tier tuition system is usually portrayed as a piece of xenophobia and rank insolence to other Canadians who, through equalization, are partially picking up the tab for Quebec’s lower tuition, Nova Scotia and Ontario are given a total pass, despite their policies having almost identical effects.

What that tells us is that Canadians don’t mind mobility barriers as long as they are dressed-up as “affordability enhancements”. Ultimately, such measures are self-defeating; as with trade barriers, eventually everyone is left worse off.  But there are enough small-minded politicians out there to ensure that these kinds of tactics always have a potential audience.  As budgets get tighter over the next couple of years, there’s a good chance we’ll see more examples of discriminatory tuition fees, loans, and grants being made non-portable across provincial borders.  I hope that’s not the case, but history doesn’t give me huge grounds for optimism.

April 23

The Implications of Net Zero Tuition

Over the past two days, I’ve been explaining how Canada spends as much on non-repayable aid as its PSE institutions collect in tuition fees for domestic students – meaning, in net terms, that Canadian students pay zero tuition.  Today I want to explore the implications of this.

Let’s start with what it doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean that many people are going to school for free.  All this funding is pretty lumpy. Many Quebecers and Newfoundlanders are receiving significantly more money than they are paying – ditto First Nations and students in Quebec CEGEPs.  On the other hand, education is pretty expensive in Alberta because of the way the provincial government chose to slash student aid funding at the outset of the recession.

Another group also making out pretty well is graduate students in non-professional fields.  They make up about 10% of the post-secondary student body, yet with their hold over the bulk of government and institutional merit scholarships, and their being nearly all independent students (and hence receiving more generous student aid packages), they are likely taking home something like 25-30% of the entire non-repayable available aid (of course, one could make the case that money for graduate students shouldn’t really be thought about in the same way as student aid, since it’s really support for research.  There’s no hard-and-fast line here, but it’s worth a debate).

But here’s what it does mean: at over $7 billion in aid, 90-95% of it going to full-time students, we are spending something on the order of $5,500 per full-time student in non-repayable aid – and that includes those full-time CEGEP students who are paying $0 in tuition.  Pure and simple, it makes a mockery of the idea that there is some sort of generalized affordability crisis.   Nobody – absolutely nobody – is paying sticker price for tuition, and a substantial proportion of students are paying nothing at all (or very close to it).  The next time someone (say, the Canadian Centre on Policy Alternatives, for instance) tries to peddle an “affordability crisis”, they need to be refuted vigorously.  Insufficient student aid money is not the problem.

What is a problem is that not enough of this money gets to the right students.  Sometimes, this is because the money is geographically restricted (e.g. too much aid in Quebec, not enough in Alberta), but the main reason is that our tax credit system, which puts $2.5 billion in the hands of students and their parents each year, is a colossal waste of potential.  Re-distributing that money more according to need (as Quebec, in the one decent thing to come out of the Red Square movement, did back here) is long overdue as a policy measure.

That some students need extra funds is not in doubt, as all serious observers of Canadian higher education know.  What separates the serious people from the cranks and the dilettantes, however, is precisely the ability to believe this without concluding that the problem is a generalized one, or that the only solution is to freeze or reduce tuition.  Net zero tuition makes that position completely untenable.

April 22

Canadian Students Pay Net Zero Tuition

Yesterday, we noted that Canada hands out over $10 billion to its students each year.  Of that, $6.6. billion goes to students in the form of tax credits or grants; another $700 million is spent on savings incentives of various sorts.  All told,  over 70% of the $10 billion is non-repayable.

How does that compare to what students spend on tuition?  Well, this isn’t entirely straightforward.  We know from CAUBO/Statscan statistics that in 2011-12, universities collected $7.37B in fees from students.  What we don’t know is how much of this comes from Canadian students and how much comes from foreign ones.  At best, what we can do is approximate.  The Canadian Bureau for International Education (CBIE) says that in 2011, there were 131,500 international students in Canadian universities, of whom roughly 12% are doctoral students.  Stastcan says that in that year, international undergraduate fees averaged $17,500.  Let’s assume that the doctoral students among them are paying zero, but the rest are paying full freight.  That means: .88 times 131,500, times $17,500 = $2.025 billion in foreign student fees.   And by extension, $ 5.35Bn in domestic student fees.

What about on the colleges side?  That’s a little more fuzzy.  For starters, the latest college data I have floating around the office is from 2007-08 (it’s a free email, people, you get what you pay for).  It showed colleges collecting a little under $1.9 billion in fees  (in $2011) from all sources, including continuing ed and trade-voc programs.  Build in a wee bit of growth and we’re probably talking about something in the neighbourhood of $2.2 billion in terms of total fee intake.

What share of that is domestic?  Again, it’s fuzzy.  The CBIE data isn’t clear about colleges’ share of international students, but it’s probably the lion’s share of “trade” and “other PSE” combined, so call it about 18% of the 239,000 international students here in 2011, or about 43,000 in total (Colleges Ontario’s 2012 environment scan says there were 18,000 international students in Ontario alone in 2011, so that seems about in the ball park).  We have absolutely no idea what international student fees are in colleges because nobody tracks that, but let’s really low-ball it and say the average is $7,000.  That would imply international student fee income of about 300 million on the nose, and, by implication, a domestic tuition “take” of $1.9Bn.

So, just to tally things up here:





Total domestic tuition income in = $7.3 billion.   That’s almost exactly, on the nose, what goes out in non-repayable aid to students and their families each year.

Net zero tuition.  I’ll look at the implications tomorrow.


April 21

Canada’s Annual Student Assistance Bill: $10 Billion, Most of it Non-Repayable

Let’s just count up all there is out there, shall we?  Just for fun.

There’s loans, obviously.  In 2010-11, there was a little under $4 billion of those.  Of that, however, about half a billion was forgiven through loan remission, meaning  that “Net Loans” – was about $3.5 billion.  On top of that, there was about another $1.3 billion in up-front grants given out that year (roughly half from the feds, half from the provinces).

(How do I know this, you ask?  Because I’ve been doing surveys of provincial and federal student loans for over 10 years.  I have a database.  Well, CMEC technically owns it, but you know what I mean.)

Government Student Aid by Type, Canada 1993-94 to 2010-11, in ‘000s of $2011














Then there are the various federal and provincial tax credits for tuition, plus the education and textbook credits. These are calculated by using CRA taxfiler data (most recent years available here) to see how many credits have been claimed, and then multiplying out by federal and provincial tax rates to calculate the value of the credits claimed.  Altogether, that’s another $2.3 billion going to students and families for higher education (roughly two-thirds of it from Ottawa).

Canada Education Savings Grant?  Canada Learning Bond?  Another $700 million, or so, combined.  Then throw on another $350 million for provincial merit grants and tri-council scholarships.  All told, that $5.13 billion in non-repayable aid given out each year (call it $4.4 billion if you want to exclude the CESG/CLB, which, after all, is for future students), plus another $3.5 billion in loans.  Total?  $8.6 billion in assistance, only 40% of which is loans.

But wait!  We’re not finished here.  According to the annual Canadian Association of University Business Officers/Statscan Financial Survey, universities collectively gave out just over $1.5 billion in scholarships.  Toss in another $350 million or so in First Nations’ Band Funding under the Post-Secondary Student Support Program, and we’re up to $10.6 billion in aid going to individuals each year, fully $7 billion of which is non-repayable.  And that was three years ago.  It’s gone up since then by maybe another $300 million, all told  (mostly driven by Ontario’s 30%-off tuition grant, and increased institutional spending on scholarships).

$7.3 billion – or even the $6.6 billion if you don’t want to include the CESG/CLB stuff – is a heck of a lot of money.  It’s almost the size of the entire budget for the province of Newfoundland.  It’s more money than governments spend on our entire national college system.  And it all goes to students.  And it’s all non-repayable.

How about that?

An interesting question is: how does this figure stack up when compared to how much students pay in tuition?  Tune in tomorrow.

March 19

The Canadian Way of Higher Education Subsidies

One of the biggest arguments in student assistance is about who to subsidize and why.  Unfortunately, because we are rarely explicit in the way we talk about subsidies, discussions tend to be a dialogue of the deaf.

One school of thought says we should subsidize students based on their parental income.  Students from poor families need more help to succeed than students from wealthier families, and so the former should pay less, and so we should pay them grants to reduce the net cost of attendance.  Then there’s a second school of thought, which says that the way to focus subsidies is to focus on needy graduates.  Forget the upfront subsidies: the people we need to support are the ones who don’t do well out of their education, and as a result remain low-income for years.   The third school of thought holds that everybody should receive the same subsidy no matter what their parents make, or what they make afterwards.  And then there’s a final school of thought, which says we should reward “good behaviour”, however defined.

Other countries are pretty explicit about their choices.  The Americans go pretty heavy on the parental income track (though the beneficial effects of this are counteracted by other funding and policy choices).  The UK is quite explicit about using the graduate income track as a means of subsidy: everybody borrows oodles of money to pay expensive tuition fees, and the ones who make out worse get these loans forgiven (eventually).  Much of Europe – especially Scandinavia – operates under the third school of thought, even at the price (in a few countries) of having an unnecessarily badly-funded system as a result.  The fourth view is surprisingly widely-held around the world, as it applies to anywhere that has a dual-track system of higher education (most of the ex-socialist countries of Europe, much of Latin American and Anglophone Africa) where “meritorious” students get first crack at the subsidies.

In Canada, we have a mish-mash of strategies, partly because we’re a federal system, so coherence is always a problem, and partly because we have a real tendency to reach for solutions before fully articulating the problem.  Our student aid system mostly works on the parental system, but allows students to declare independence relatively early (in practice, age 22), which effectively moves to the universal system.  We have a relatively generous Repayment Assistance Program (RAP), which uses the needy graduates approach.  And  though we aren’t especially heavy on merit awards, our $700M/year Canada Education Savings Grant, which rewards savers, is just a variant on the “reward good behaviour” approach.

You see, Canada just doesn’t do joined-up coordinated approaches; rather, we tend to just reach for whatever looks shiny, and implement it.  The result is a system that spends wildly in all directions, with nothing resembling an underlying philosophy.  Each individual program is arguably successful on its own terms, but the result is a system tha is arguably less successful than it could be if we focused spending on one or two of these pathways.

March 18

How ICRs can Become Graduate Taxes: The Case of England

As noted yesterday, graduate taxes and income-contingent loans have many similar features.  They both defer payments until after graduation, and they are usually payable as a percentage of marginal income above a given threshold.  In England right now, the payment scheme on ICR loans is that students pay 9% of whatever income they earn over £21,000 (roughly C$38,000).  The difference between the two is that with a loan you have a set amount to pay, and when it’s paid you’re finished.  With a graduate tax there is no principal, so you just keeping paying that fraction of your income for as long as the tax lasts.

That sounds like a simple and clear delineation, right?  Well, here’s a twist: what if the loan were so big that you had no practical chance of ever paying it off at the set repayment rate?  What would the difference between an ICR and a grad tax be then?  The answer is: practically nothing – and that’s exactly where England finds itself right now.

Let’s step back a bit: in 2010, the UK government decided to let institutions charge tuition up to £9000.  They also decided to allow students to borrow this amount for tuition (plus more, again, for living expenses) under the repayment scheme described above.  When they did this, they were under the misapprehension that universities might actually try to compete for students on price, and hence assumed an average tuition of about £7000.  Rather predictably, average tuition shot straight to £8500.  As a result, it’s quite common for students to be borrowing £12-13,000 per year, or £36-39,000 for a degree (that’s C$66-72,000 – yes, really).

Crazy, right?  Cue all the “intolerable debt burden” stuff.  But wait: these loans aren’t like the ones we’re used to.  Repayment is based on your income rather than size of debt – no graduate is ever required to pay more than 9% of their income over £21,000 in any given year, so the burden in any given year is pretty limited.  And – here’s the kicker – the loan gets forgiven after 30 years.  So, if you don’t finish paying, your obligation disappears without you having any debt overhang. Exactly like a Graduate Tax.

How many won’t pay it off?  Well, these things are difficult to predict, but even over 30 years, paying 9% of your income over $38,000 isn’t likely to completely pay off very many of these loans.  The government’s own financial forecasts are that 35-40% of the total net present value of the loans will have to be forgiven (others put it 8-10% higher).  At a rough estimate, that probably means 70 to 80% of all borrowers will see some loan forgiveness.

At this point you start to wonder if debt numbers really matter in this system.  Forget ICR: for most people, the current system is simply one in which government transfers billions of pounds in 2014 to institutions using student loans as a kind of voucher system, then turns a portion of those loans into student grants in 2044 via loan forgiveness.  In the meantime, graduates pay a 9% surtax on income over £21,000.

Altogether, a very wacky system.  Not a model for anyone, really.

Page 1 of 41234