Higher Education Strategy Associates

Reforming Funding for First Nations Students

I see from this article by John Ivison of the National Post that the issue of funding for post-secondary education for First Nations is becoming a bit of a hot potato.  Time for us to take a look at the situation.

I think most people now get that First Nations’ students don’t receive “free education”.  They pay tuition fees like everyone else.  What they do have (if they have “status”) is a parallel student aid system, which is called the Post-Secondary Student Support Program or PSSSP. If you are unclear on the difference between “status” and “non-status” Indians, have a peek at this primer from the âpihtawikosisân  blog.  PSSSP is a $322 million/year program, under which Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC) distributes this money according to a somewhat obscure formula to the 600-odd bands across the country.  They in turn hand out that money to their own members who wish to take higher education courses.

In theory, PSSSP is a need-based program, and bands are supposed to allocate money according to need “up to” maximums in various categories (tuition, living expenses, books, child care, etc).  But individual bands aren’t blessed with a whole lot of need-assessment capability, and in practice pretty much everyone who is admitted to the system gets the maximum.  And so given a relatively stable overall budget (the program’s growth has been capped at 2% per year since – if I recall correctly – 1990), increasing costs and increasing numbers of people wishing to use the program, what happens is that many are not able to access the program at all.  About 20,000 students receive money each year, with each receiving on average about $15,000.  Each band has a “waiting list” in which people are prioritized according to various criteria.  The total number of people on waiting lists is not an easy number to pin down, but it’s generally estimated at just north of 10,000 students.

Lifting the growth cap on PSSSP should be a relatively high priority, and the Liberals did promise an extra $50 million infusion in their manifesto.  One of the biggest disappointments in last year’s federal budget was the Liberal government’s failure to follow through on this promise.  The story here is complicated, but basically goes like this: in their costing document, the Liberals misunderstood how much was actually in the AANDC budget and so had a hole in their projections when it came to paying for their promises on Aboriginal K-12 education.  In order to meet Aboriginal groups halfway (actually somewhat less than that) on K-12 spending, they killed the PSSSP increase and threw the money into the K-12 pot.

Unwilling to spend any political capital going after a government which was sky-high in the polls, aboriginal groups were very low-key in their criticism of the budget.  After all, a majority government is in power for four years – and there’s some chance the Liberals will make good on their PSSSP promise in their second budget.  Perhaps to that end, towards the end of the summer criticism grew from both First nations and student groups (a hat-tip to the Canadian Federation of Students on this one); expect a renewed push on this front over the fall.

But there’s another element to this story not getting much play.  A few years ago, in a paper I wrote for AANDC , I noted that in fact almost everyone who qualifies for PSSSP would also qualify for the Canada Student Grant.  That would be another $3,000 per student per year.  Multiply that out across the 20,000 or so students currently getting PSSSP, that’s $60 million a year.  So if you could get everyone who currently gets PSSSP to also sign up for the Canada Student Grant and then have bands deduct that amount from their PSSSP award, bands would save enough to fund another 4,000 students at current PSSSP levels of funding.

Sound straightforward?  It’s not.  There are a whole bunch of barriers to getting bands to behave this way, not least of all that First Nations deserve to get their money for PSE on a nation-to-nation basis (i.e. like PSSSP) rather than having to go around clawing back $3,000 at a time with other government programs.  And yet, according to that Ivison article, it does seem like the Government of Canada is trying to push the idea of getting more status Indians with PSSSP funding onto student grants.

Is this an alternative to an extra $50 million in PSSP or in addition?  Who knows?  Is the plan to have bands claw back the new grant money from current students, and then distribute it to alleviate wait lists, or to give existing students more money? Who knows. I suspect in practice the answer may vary from band to band.  Either way, the next few months may promise a new era in First Nations Post-Secondary funding.

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