HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Marketing “Free Tuition”

With a major student aid reform almost certain to be announced in the federal budget today, it’s worth pondering how the Ontario Liberals have managed to get themselves into a bit of a mess with how they’ve marketed their own changes to student aid.

The Ontario reform, as you will recall, was a shuffling of money rather than an infusion of one (note: some of the shuffling was federal shuffling, not provincial shuffling – that is, the provincial changes are predicated on the feds making changes in today’s budget.  Nobody said that last month, but it’s true.  So if you’re wondering how today’s changes will affect the provincial changes, the answer is they’re already baked-in).

The province finally noted that it was spending a heck of a lot of money on grants, loan remission, and tax credits; so much so that some students were getting more in aid than they were paying in tuition.  And so it decided – wisely – that instead of getting beat up for having high tuition all the time, it could re-purpose all those different piles of cash into one big up-front grant so that it would be more obvious that “net” tuition was zero, or close to zero.

If you read the Ontario budget papers, all of this was stated in quite careful terms.  It’s replete with sensible, cautious, and accurate phrases like “Ninety per cent of dependent college students and 70 per cent of dependent university students from families with incomes under $50,000 will receive grants greater than their average cost of tuition.”  However, the Finance Minister’s speech was slightly less cautious: “For college and university students who come from families with incomes of less than $50,000, average tuition will be free”.  By the time that made it into the newspapers it became “free tuition for low- and middle-income kids”.  And it got such a decent reaction that the Liberal Party (as opposed to the government of Ontario) immediately started crowing about “free tuition” and placing Premier Wynne in front of banners with those two words on it.

This is problematic, as the Liberals themselves are starting to discover.  It’s one thing to want to give accurate information to students applying for university and college about how low their net prices actually are; it’s another thing to knowingly over-promise something.  Inevitably, there will be some students who think tuition will be free, when in fact grants are just getting bigger and are covering a greater percentage of tuition.  It probably won’t be that many students – the actual implementation date is a long way off – but in this kind of situation, it won’t take too many confused souls complaining to the papers in order for people to level the claim that the aid re-vamp is a fraud, and thus sour an initiative that was full of promise.

Basically, political comms people are awful.  Under no circumstances should they be allowed to try to make hay out of changes to complicated social programs.  Let’s hope the federal Liberals will avoid this kind of mistake.

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