Today I want to think about how the new Ontario system of student assistance is going to play out. I think there is the potential here for quite an interesting and useful debate; but the timetable is somewhat tricky.
As you will recall, the Government of Ontario is rolling out a plan to provide enough grants to fully offset tuition in most university and college programs for students from families with incomes of less than $50,000. That’s going to happen by 2017-2018. But the really interesting thing they want to is what they call “net billing”. It’s going to roll out sometime in early 2018 for students starting in the 2018-19 year.
Until now, student aid in Canada has worked on the fairly bonkers premise that you don’t need to know anything about your student aid package until after you’ve applied to and been accepted by an institution. Mostly, that has to do with Canadians governments’ instinct to make things easier for themselves more than for clients. You see students apply for college/university right around the time that governments make budgets (i.e. January-March). Governments like to have the flexibility to change programs entirely at the last minute, and so prefer to make students wait until after budget season to apply for the next year’s aid. What Ontario has done is say “that’s stupid”, and will now accept applications a few months earlier so that students’ aid request can be processed at the same time as their applications. In effect the province has guaranteed that henceforth changes to aid are going to have to be announced a full application cycle before they take effect. Result: henceforth, students will see on their acceptance letter what tuition is, what grants they will receive, and what “net tuition” is.
Now in the short term, this will work extremely well for the governing Liberals because by a COMPLETE COINCIDENCE (no, really), the next provincial election is scheduled for Spring 2018. So tens of thousands of students and parents will be receiving these letters announcing clear, accurate (and low) net prices right before voting. Amazing how that happens.
But in the slightly longer term – say the first twelve months of a new government, when some serious decisions are going to have to be made about paying off the province’s world-beating debt – there’s going to be another debate. Because the data that feeds into those admissions letters will be in universities’ hands. And they are going to show in excruciating detail how much public subsidy is going to people who don’t really need it.
Think about the histograms the Council of Ontario Universities will be able to produce. They’ll be able to show, by income level and field of study, how little families are actually paying. And they’ll be able to do it not just in reports for wonks like me, but also to parents in the actual acceptance letters. “After grants, you pay: $1,000. Actual cost of child’s education: $18,000. Degree of subsidy: 94.5%”
For families under 50K, the average payment will be zero (which is about where it should be), and the figure will show 100%. But families around $100K, whose net tuition payment might end up being $2000 or $2500, might be surprised to learn that they are being subsidized to the tune of 88-90%. And families at $175,000, subsidized at perhaps 65%? Hmmmm.
I don’t think many people – other than say, the Canadian Federation of Students and their wilder-eyed allies – genuinely believe that tuition for children of wealthier families should be free. Most people agree that there should be some sort of net price slope, running from zero for students from poorer families and upwards as family income increases. There’s no consensus about where the threshold for going above zero is, and no consensus about what the grade of the slop should be. That’s mostly because we’ve never had data to look at the question properly before.
But soon we will. And that is going to kick start a discussion about who might be able to pay more, especially in times where governments are apparently no longer prepared to hand new money to universities and colleges. Only this time, no one is going to be able to make misleading arguments about tuition and how it affects the poor, yadda yadda because a) everyone will finally understand how little low-income students pay and b) because proposals to raise fees will explicitly be made in terms of net fees, and can be targeted specifically to on those families who can pay. In fact, to start with they won’t be phrased as tuition increases at all, they’ll be phrased in terms of diverting some subsidies from (better-off) individuals to institutions.
And that’s all good. We will -finally- have informed debate. Expect the summer of 2018 to be particularly interesting, policy-wise.