HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Category Archives: student aid

November 20

Independence Day

When should a student be considered independent of his or her parents for the purpose of calculating student assistance?  It’s a tricky question, which generates different answers in different parts of the world.

Most student loan schemes require some kind of test of parental income for at least some of their clients.  In some places, it’s a way to save money – there isn’t enough to go around, so let’s prioritize the less well-off.  In other places (including Canada), it’s because there’s a recognition that education is something that families (not just the student) pay for, and so family incomes need to be taken into account.

Not everyone goes along with this logic.  In some parts of Europe – Scandinavia in particular – the age of independence is 18.  Everybody, regardless of their family income, is considered equally wealthy (or equally poor, depending on how you look at it), and therefore automatically has access to grants and a fairly generous set of loans (about 85% of Swedish students opt to take the loan).  This approach makes more sense from an equity point of view in Scandinavia than it does here, because of smaller disparities in family income, but that’s not really why they do it.  Rather, the policy fairly explicitly is about making young people independent of their parents by giving them financial aid.  Which, to put it mildly, isn’t a goal most Canadians associate with student aid.

The question for most countries with respect to independence is when to end it.  In Australia, it’s essentially when you turn 25.  In the US, you’re independent if you’re 24 or over, if you’re a graduate student, if you’re a veteran (or are on active duty in the reserves or national guard), if you’ve ever been in foster care, or if you have children.  Quebec has no age limit, per se: if you’ve ever been married, ever spent two years in the labour force without going to school, or have finished 90 university-level credits (which effectively means “in graduate school”), or are seven years out from finishing your last period in full-time studies you’re considered independent.

The rest of Canada has a threefold test – like Quebec, it has the 24-month labour market test and the married test, but otherwise, the requirement to become independent is simply to be more than 4 years out of secondary school.  In practice that means independence at 22, which is pretty much the lowest age for any country that makes the dependence/independence distinction.

Why does Canada have such convoluted rules that don’t invoke a specific age?  Basically, it’s the quality provisions (i.e. section 15) of the Charter, which says you can’t discriminate by (among other things) age, unless you have a really good reason to do so.  Now, in the Gosselin decision, the Supreme Court held 5-4 that governments could in fact explicitly discriminate on age in social programs (the case involved a Quebec policy that provided lower welfare rates to people under 30).  But the student aid rules date from before Gosselin, and have never been subsequently re-written or simplified.  And, near as I can tell, Justice Department lawyers aren’t convinced that the existing rules would pass muster, even post Gosselin.

Hence the ludicrous rules on the Canada Student Grant, which basically guarantee a $2,000 grant to anyone with “family income” of under (roughly) $40,000, but where “family” for independent students basically consists of the student’s own income.  In practice, this means the CSG is a universal grant for independent students.  Which is nuts – and also a major reason why CSL program expenditures are rising so quickly.

If we were a little tougher on independent undergraduate students (many of whose parents are relatively well-off), we could probably spend more money on deserving, poorer undergraduates.  It’s a trade-off we should think about making.

November 17

Affordability

If I could ban one word from higher education discussions, it’s “affordability”.  It’s a word without precision, and, particularly when used as a synonym for “accessibility”, it’s downright misleading and harmful.

The worst is when someone uses the raw price of a good – in this case tuition – to indicate “affordability”; as in: “tuition went up 5% last year, and that makes it less affordable”.  This is simply asinine.  When the price of milk or gas goes up, we don’t wring our hands about the “affordability” of milk or gas.  We don’t do this for two reasons.  The first is that “affordability”, as a concept, is a ratio and not a point. It’s a function not just of price, but of available resources.  If people were serious when talking about affordability, they would be talking about it in terms of fractions, not prices.

(This of course raises a question – what should we use as a denominator?  When I talk affordability, I tend to use mean or median family income, because nearly all students entering post-secondary education for the first time are drawing on family resources to do so.  The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives tends to use much smaller numbers as a denominator, like whatever the minimum wage happens to be.  I get where they’re coming from on this – many students, as they get older, pick up more of the burden of their education costs [though they also tend to earn significantly more than minimum wage].  My number will tend make the fraction fairly small.  Their number will make it look large.  Who’s right?  It depends; to some extent, we both are.)

Which brings us to the second issue: there are people for whom a night out at the movies is affordable, and others for whom it is not.  For some people a Mercedes S-500 is affordable, for others (most of us) it’s not.  Demand curves slope downward, and affordability matters at the margin, not the average.  Most people are simply not affected by an increase in price.  Even in the largest tuition increase in history – the English tuition hike of 2012, where tuition rose by nearly $9,000 – the net effect on applications was only about 5%.  To the extent that affordability affects accessibility, the issue is always about how it affects student at the margin, not how it affects the average student.

That’s why student aid is important.  Student aid helps the students at the margin (or at least it does so everywhere outside Ontario, where “needy” has been re-defined by a vote-grubbing government as anyone with income under $160,000).  Having grants offsetting higher costs is precisely the way affordability concerns should be dealt with – provided you think that affordability is an access issue.

The problem is, for most people the question of affordability is about almost anything other than accessibility.  For most, it’s about making sure that whoever is paying for tuition has more money in their pocket to have a better “quality of life”.   Parents – you deserve that second vacation each year rather than paying tuition!  Students – you should have smaller loan repayments on your way to being the upper-middle class of tomorrow!

Affordability – as a ratio – is thus an important concept in the way we design student aid to help students at the margin.  But the way most people try to explain the concept, and the purposes for which they deploy the concept, are either wrong or disingenuous.  We need to talk a lot more about access and a lot less about affordability.

November 10

Three Rules for Politicos

So I see that the Government of Ontario has announced what is possibly the most boutique student aid program of all time.  If students volunteer at the 2014-15 PanAm Games, they will be exempted from the pre-study period contribution (a contribution from the money you earn up to 16 weeks prior to the start of your studies) for 2015-16, and will be get a 12-month grace period on their loans (instead of 6-month) before needing to start repayment.

<puts computer away>

<sighs, drinks some Red Bull, looks out the window wistfully>

<slams head against desk violently, yelling “WHY?  WHY MUST THIS PROVINCE BE GOVERNED SO BADLY?  WHY?>

<Breathes deeply.  Opens computer again>

OK, three things here.  Three things every politician in the country desperately needs to understand:

1)     Exploiting Unpaid Labour =/= Encouraging Voluntarism.  If it’s mandatory – as in “mandatory volunteering hours in high school” – it’s not volunteering.  If you pay for it in kind, it’s not volunteering.  This kind of thing demeans the notion of actual volunteering.

Oh wait, you’re worried that you’re asking someone to do too much for nothing?  Then PAY THEM, you gibbering moron.  Pay them for their work.  It’s not hard: we’ve been doing it since the end of serfdom.

2)     Stop Using Student Aid as an Indirect Government Policy Tool.  This seems to be in everyone’s playbook these days.  Not enough money in the PanAm kitty because you’ve blown it all on buying out incompetent executives?  Use student aid as a way to attract cheap labour!  Having trouble filling rural nursing or legal aid positions?  Use student loan forgiveness as a recruitment tool!

No.  No, no, no!  Student aid is about giving money to students to complete their studies.  If you want to play labour market games, do so directly.  Problem finding nurses for rural areas?  Have the damn Health Ministry pay them more.  Otherwise, you’re sending the message that you only want nurses from poorer families – the ones whose parents couldn’t give them enough money to keep them off student loans – to work in rural areas.

3)     No More Boutique Programs.  Student aid is already way too complicated.  Governments are collectively throwing $5.6 billion into student subsidies – that is, about 78% of the value of domestic tuition fees (institutions throw in another $1.6 billion on top of that).  And yet everyone thinks the cost of education is sky-high: students and parents simply do not understand the subsidies they are being given.  That is a clear sign of policy failure. 

Basically, if you’re thinking up boutique policy in student aid you’re part of the problem, not part of the solution.  I realise this may come as a shock to the Ontario Liberals, who appear not to know any way to govern other than through policy boutiquery, but it’s true.  The priority for the coming years must be to simplify the system, not to tack on more bells and whistles.  Period.

Got that, politicos?  Pay the kids for their work, keep student aid simple, and tell the other ministries to stop using student aid as a way to backstop their own policy failures.  Stick to those three rules, and you’ll do all right.

November 04

Yet More Reasons Free Tuition is a Bad Idea

The easy case to be made against free tuition is that it benefits students from richer backgrounds.  That’s because they are more numerous in higher education than students from poorer backgrounds and so, on aggregate, would receive more aid.  But that misses a more important point: because of the interaction between student aid and tuition, students from wealthier backgrounds would also receive a bigger benefit on an individual level.

Let’s take a really simple example from Ontario.  Take two students, Adele and Diana.  Both live with their parents and attend university in the same Arts program, but Adele’s family’s income is $40,000, while Diana’s is $160,000.  Currently, both pay $6,957 in tuition.  Both also receive $2,163 in tax credits.  But Adele receives $5,000 in grant money, meaning her all-inclusive net tuition is -$206, while Diana’s is $4,794.

Now imagine the province gets rid of tuition entirely.  Diana, the rich kid, sees her sticker price go to zero, and her all-inclusive sticker price fall to -$768 (that’s the value of the monthly “education amount” tax credits, which would presumably still remain even if the tuition fee tax credit disappeared).  In this scenario, Adele’s sticker price falls to zero; she would also retain the education amount tax credit, and would keep her $2,000 Canada Student Grant.  But she would lose all her provincial grant funding, which is based on tuition.  Her net tuition would thus fall to -$2,768.

Think about that: adopting free tuition means that the kid from the poor family would benefit by about $2,500, while the kid from the richer family would be better off by $5,562.  And, of course, as we noted earlier, higher education enrolments tilt towards the better-off (this is true both in free-tuition and positive tuition countries) – meaning free tuition is a double give-away to the rich.  There’s more of them, and they get more back from a free tuition policy.

Remind me why this is a good idea, again?

Poor students from colleges receive even less of a benefit.  Students there have tuition of $4,032.  But if tuition were eliminated, that $4,032 savings would be offset by a loss of $2,016 in tuition-related grants, and a little over $800 in tax credits.  Net gain: less than $1,200.  While the kid from the $160,000 per year family in university gets an extra $5,562.

But where it gets really gets crazy is with respect to single parents.  Take Joe, a college student with one child, living on student aid.  In the current system, Joe would receive a little over $7,000 in pure loans, and about $10,000 in remissible loans (i.e. loans that are forgiven each year).  If tuition were eliminated, however, he’d lose the remissible loan (i.e. a delayed grant) almost dollar-for-dollar.  Plus, on top of that, he’d lose $825 in tuition tax credits (the lower tax credits for college are because of lower tuition, in case you’re wondering).  So Joe would actually pay more, in net terms, after a reduction in tuition.  While the kid from the $160,000 per year family in university would get an extra $5,562.

How is this fair?  How is it progressive?  How is it in any way a good use of money?

If you substitute in different students or different provinces you’ll get slightly different results, but the basic point remains: net tuition is already free (or close to it) for many people in this country – particularly, poor dependent students and single parents.  Reducing nominal tuition does little or nothing to help these people, and in some cases can actually hurt them.  Our student aid debate would be much better if more people understood this.

October 29

Cost of Attendance

You may recall that we recently put out a paper looking at “net prices” in Canadian higher education, which concluded that, in many cases, these prices were substantially lower than is commonly believed, and that too many of our subsidies in higher education were effectively hidden from those who benefit from them.  The reaction for the most part was amusingly incoherent – mostly variations on “they must be lying, because I’ve never heard of these hidden subsidies”.

But there was one line of criticism that is very much worth discussing.  Several people said “look, expressing subsidies as a function of tuition is all well and good, but the cost of education doesn’t just consist of tuition and fees, it’s living expenses, too – so why didn’t you also include that?”

Fair question.  We did it for two reasons. The first is practical: fees are set and living costs are not.  Some students move to another city to study (either by choice or out of necessity) – that raises their costs by several thousand dollars.  Some students don’t move cities, but rather choose to move out of their parents house anyway – again significantly raising costs.  Students can and do choose various levels of accommodations, with different financial consequences.  Many students also either own or rent cars.  I could go on, but you get the idea: student living costs vary enormously either by choice or circumstance, and more to the point, these costs will be to some degree dependent on the resources government makes available, which brings an endogeneity problem.  It’s a methodological nightmare: hence, we decided to leave it alone.

But there’s another reason to leave living costs out: quite simply, they aren’t a cost of education.  Whether or not a young person goes to school, they need to live.  Those costs (or some of them, anyway) would be incurred regardless.

Pointing this out usually drives people mental.  “But they have to live!” people say, “and they can’t earn the money to do that while they’re studying!”  Well, indeed.  This is why the real cost of attendance is not what students spend, but rather what they fail to earn – their opportunity cost.  We confuse this point all the time, because through our student aid program we try to compensate direct costs rather than reward missed earnings.  But the fact of the matter is the actual “cost” is lost wages.

Could we have included lost wages in our “net cost” calculations?  Possibly – though of course we’d have to make a fair number of assumptions about employment rates, hours worked, and hourly wages, all of which would have been open to challenge.  So on the whole, it seemed safer to leave them out.

What about the policy aspect though?  Why do we compensate living costs rather than lost wages?  Two reasons, really.   First is that it’s a hell of a lot of easier to explain to students and the public.  And second, there are reasonable policy rationales for – at the very least – covering the cost of moving away from home, either for reasons of access (for students from rural areas who need to move to attend education) or program choice (for all students).

Basically, it’s one of those cases where what makes sense for policy analysis and what makes sense for actual policy aren’t one and the same.

October 16

Osgoode’s Income-Contingent Experiment

There’s an interesting experiment developing at Osgoode law school involving the creation of (what is being called) an income-contingent loan system.  Dean Lorne Sossin outlines the plan a little bit in his blog, here.  There are some fairly big details missing from this description, for the quite good reason that the Dean is leaving a number of design features open, pending discussions with the faculty’s students.  But one crucial thing about this program is being obscured by the term “loan”: namely, that no money actually changes hands.

The language of “income-contingency” can make things a bit confusing.  Canada, as I’ve argued before, already has a system of student loans that is substantially income-contingent – but they are income-contingent loans.  What Osgoode is considering is an actual Australian-style income-contingent fee.  This is quite different.

In North America, the way student aid works is that an institution charges students a fee.  A student asks the government for money via student aid.  The government gives the student money, and the student pays the institution.  Technology makes this little money circle move pretty quickly, but the basic point is the money moves through the student’s hands (legally, if not in fact) before it goes to the institution.  The fee is immutable, and the loan contract is between the student and the government.

In Australia, the Higher Education Contribution Scheme works somewhat differently.  There is a HECS “charge” – that is, an amount a student notionally owes.  But there is no loan that goes through the student’s hands.  When the student is admitted, there is simply an agreement that the student will pay that notional amount down over time through his or her earnings.  Most do so, and relatively quickly; others never do because their incomes never reach the necessary threshold to trigger payment (re-payment is not required below about $51,000).  But as the title says, it’s a contribution, not a fee.  The contribution is conditional on future income, and so there is no “loan” in the sense that we understand it.  This is effectively what Osgoode is trying out.

You can see why this idea might be attractive: for those people who are put off by the sticker price, the idea of waiving up-front tuition seems like a pretty good deal.  But there are some legal/administrative issues that might make this more complicated that it appears at first glance.  The most obvious is how to manage repayment.  In Australia, the government monitors graduates incomes and collects repayment through the tax system.  Osgoode, to state the obvious, does not.  If there’s an Achilles heel here, this is probably it.

But that’s not the only problem to solve.  The other issue is how the waived tuition will be reported to the government.  If it is reported as zero, it will reduce a students’ eligibility for loans and thousands of dollars’ worth of tax credits.  Some reduction in public loans probably makes sense since they have less immediate need for liquidity; however, if the students don’t get the tax credits *and* they repay their entire tuition, they would actually be worse off over the long-run.

Hopefully, some solutions can be found to these problems.  Because its nice to see institutions innovating in making professional education cheaper for a change.

October 07

Do the Poor Really Pay More?

There’s a trope out there that goes something like this: “Loans are unfair because interest on the loans means that needy students pay more in total to go to school than students who don’t need a loan“.  If it were true, this would indeed be problematic.  But the thing is, for the most part, it’s not.

Let’s follow two hypothetical students: Claudia and Eveline.  Claudia can manage to pay $25,000 for her four years of tuition, upfront; Eveline cannot, and she borrows $25K from Canada Student Loans and her provincial student aid program over four years.  Assume that inflation is a constant 2%, and that interest during the repayment period is 6.25% (over the last few years, real interest rates have floated between 400 and 450 basis points above inflation).

Student loans carry zero interest during the in-study period.  This means students actually make money while they’re borrowing because inflation eats away at the value of the loan before they’re required to pay it back.  In Eveline’s case, she effectively makes $1,125 between the September she starts and graduation day.

Then, of course, things start to work in the other direction.  Assuming Eveline takes eight years to pay off her student loan, she ends up making $4,321 in interest payments (figure is net of inflation).  Take away the $1,125 that Eveline “made” during the in-study period and the net interest cost comes to $3,196.

If that were the end of the story, the people who claim loans are “unfair” would be right; we would be discriminating against the poor.  But that’s not the end of the story because people who get loans usually also get grants.

If you’re an independent student making less than $38K per year and you apply for aid, you are nailed-on for an extra $2,000 per year – that’s $8,000 over the course of a degree.  Ditto if you’re a dependent student and your parents make less than $38K.  If you’re a dependent student and your parents make less than (roughly) $76K, you’re nailed-on for another $800/month – or exactly $3,200 over four years, which wipes out the interest cost of the loan.  Plus, of course, you get 15% of all interest paid as a tax credit – which means you actually come out ahead by a few hundred dollars.

Are there borrowers who don’t come out ahead?  Yes.  Those who borrowed but had family income high enough that they didn’t qualify for the middle-income grant likely wouldn’t receive a grant to offset the loan interest amount.  Borrowers who take more than eight years might end up with higher interest charges not covered by their grants (and possible remission).  There are enough variables here that it’s hard to say how many people this might include.  But remember – the base population that doesn’t get sufficient offsetting grants consists of dependent students with family incomes over $80K, that’s *maybe* 20% of all borrowers (and not the poorest 20% by any means).  Or to put it another way: probably something like 80% of borrowers are receiving more in subsidies than they pay in real interest over the life of their loan.

That’s a good thing – an outcome of our generous, if opaque, student aid system.  We should acknowledge it, celebrate it, and most of all get the usual suspects who adore this talking point to shut up about it.

October 06

Remembering the Axworthy Green Paper

It was 20 years ago today that then-Human Resources Minister Lloyd Axworthy presented the findings from his long-awaited “Green Paper” on social security to the House of Commons (the paper itself was released the day before, on October 5, 1994).  The back-drop:  Lucien Bouchard was leader of the opposition, Jacques Parizeau was the new Premier of Quebec, and we were on track for a referendum the following year.  Unemployment was over 10 percent; for youth, it was 20 percent.  Our basket-case status led to a run on the currency; the price of defending it was sky-high interest rates.  Interest payments on the federal debt were eating-up close to a third of the federal budget, so citizens were paying $1 for about 70 cents worth of services, and feeling pretty ornery about it. 

Basically, we were screwed.

By late summer it was clear that the Liberals were going to take an axe to pretty much everything in the next budget.  Where PSE was concerned, the day was looming when cash transfers would drop to zero and Established Programs Financing (the CHST was yet to be created) would become a tax-point-only affair.  It was at this juncture that HRDC minister Lloyd Axworthy decided there was no time like the present to start talking about re-designing Canada’s social security system, including student assistance.  This was either extraordinarily brave or face-palmingly stupid, depending on your point of view.

The upshot of the Axworthy student aid proposals – articulated in the general social security “Green Paper” of October 1994, and in a subsequent student aid “White Paper” in November – had its roots in some ideas that had been percolating 25 years earlier during Pearson’s second-term, when Tom Kent was the Liberals’ Policy guru.  Instead of sending money to the provinces to support higher education, why not give that money to students, either through scholarships or – this was the new bit, based on Ottawa’s straightened circumstances – loans.  And of course, this being the early 1990s, these were going to be income-contingent repayment (ICR) loans.

ICRs were all the rage in the early 90s.  Australia and Sweden had recently introduced them (Bill Clinton was in the midst of doing the same in the US), and in the former case, at least, they had permitted the introduction of fees that had made institutions better off, and permitted a major increase in university capacity – and all without negatively affecting access.  But of course, since it involved higher fees, the usual suspects in Canada had an aneurism, which led to an autumn of student protests.  Students and PSE institutions united, arguing that they wanted federal funding to go through institutions, not students.

The reforms died with a whimper – with little third-party support, the reforms basically died on the night of the 1995 budget, when transfers to provinces were slashed with no concomitant change in the loan programs.  But in the medium-term, the Liberals actually ended up accidentally enacting much of the Axworthy agenda.  Student Loans became substantially income-contingent through the improvement of Interest Relief (which later evolved into today’s Repayment Assistance Program), and transfers to students to pay for higher fees increased substantially through education tax credits, grants, and educations savings programs.  In fact, by the early 2000s, the feds had more or less replaced a couple of billion in transfers to provinces with an equal-sized set of transfers to individuals without anyone (including possibly themselves) really noticing.

The Green Paper was one of the great might-have-beens in Canadian social policy.  But because it’s remembered (not entirely correctly) as a failure, it’s unlikely we’ll see anything that ambitious in social policy ever again.  Shame.

August 27

The Problem at the Back End

Yesterday, we talked about how the Canadian aid system was both generous and clumsily organized, what with most of it being delivered through tax credits and loan remissions – neither of which shows up directly to reduce tuition at the time of registration.  This is something that needs to change; if we’re giving students so much money, we should at last give it to them in a form that is both useful and comprehensible.  So why can’t we do it?

Our tax credit system goes back to the Diefenbaker era (backstory here), but it really took off in the late 1990s when the education amount increased nearly eightfold in less than a decade.  Why such an increase?  Well, partly it’s because tax credits are politically convenient at election time – you can count them either as new spending or as tax cuts, depending on what audience you’re talking to.  But it’s also because provinces can’t hijack federal tax credits by diverting the money to other causes (e.g. the Harris or Charest tax cuts), or simply allow federal dollars to push out provincial ones (e.g. the Canada Study Grants for Students with Dependants).  Tax credits go straight from Ottawa to taxpayers.  So even though tax credits are a sub-optimal way of delivering student aid, they are superlative as a displacement-free method of delivering federal money.  If you don’t understand why that matters, you haven’t spent enough time in Ottawa.

Where provinces have built on tax credit nuttiness is by giving out large scale tuition rebates through the tax system.  Most provinces haven’t succumbed to it, but Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and New Brunswick have – and frankly they’ve gone bananas with it.  In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, students who finish a first undergraduate degree or college program qualify for one of those province’s graduate rebates. For graduates that remain in the province, these programs are so generous that literally everyone ends up receiving more in subsidy than they pay in tuition.  In Saskatchewan, students from families earning over $120,000 can end up receiving $34,000 in various forms of grants tax credits, while paying only $26,000 in tuition if they graduate in four years and stay in the province for seven years after graduation.

This, frankly, is nuts.  What’s the point of paying graduates $20K each to stay in Saskatchewan, regardless of pre- or post-study income?  Even if that argument had a smidgeon of validity fifteen years ago when it was introduced (amidst significant out-migration), now that Saskatchewan is a “have” province it looks more than faintly ridiculous.  Doesn’t Saskatchewan have more pressing needs than to pay middle-class kids to do what they were going to do anyway?

If we’re spending all this money making higher education cheap, we should spend it in a way that is more useful and comprehensible than tax credits.  The problem is, these kinds of subsidies are difficult to re-allocate because they benefit so many people.  But finding a way to re-allocate tax credit money is a must.  Stakeholder representative groups could do everyone a service by banding together and working out ways to give governments the necessary political cover to do the right thing.

August 26

What Students Really Pay

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.

Some nuggets:

  • 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.

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