Will University and College Really be Free in 2017?

By Sahar Ashraf

Students attending college or university in the fall of 2017 can expect to get larger grants than ever before through OSAP. The Ontario government has promised “free tuition” to students from low-income families through the Ontario Student Grant (OSG).

The Ontario Student Grant comes after decades of cutbacks to the funding of post-secondary education, which has caused tuition to triple in just two decades. Currently, post-secondary students in Ontario pay the highest tuition fees in the country. Instead of addressing these chronic and crippling cutbacks, the Ontario government is simply replacing its patchwork system of tuition and education tax credits with a single upfront grant to provide temporary relief to students.

In the upcoming school year, the provincial government has promised eligible students grants that cover the average rate of tuition in Ontario, which they calculate to be $6,500 for universities and $2,900 for colleges. The Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) offers an online calculator that estimates the amount students are eligible to receive in grants, according to their marital status, the amount of dependents they have, whether they will be attending university or college, and their family’s income.

The maximum amount a single student with no dependents can receive is $8,700, provided that they go to university, live away from home and are supported by parents who earn less than $50,000. At minimum, students from high-income families who go to college and live at home will receive $900 in grants.

The implementation of the OSG will be a welcome relief to many future students and their families. Students may take off as many years as they need to and still be eligible for the OSG, which will benefit mature students seeking higher education who until now were barred from accessing most provincial grants. More significantly, the grant will provide relief to students who need it the most, according to their financial status.

However, like most things that sound too good to be true, the “free tuition” that the Ontario government has promised comes with several caveats. The average rate of university tuition is much higher than the government’s estimate of $6,500 for universities, especially since they only considered arts and science programs in their calculations.

For example, a Bachelor of Health Sciences at the University of Toronto costs $11,900. Studying Engineering and Architectural Science at Ryerson costs between $9,859 and $11,149. Even pursuing a Bachelor of Commerce at George Brown College will add up to $8,231 for tuition and fees, significantly higher than the government’s estimate of $5,300 for colleges.

“I want to go to college so it’s done as soon as possible and so I can start paying it off right away,” said Nicole Bernabe, a high school graduate who is taking a year off to save up for school. “I wanted to go to university to be an architect but I was thinking of the money issue.”

To even be considered for the grant, students will need to have $3,000 saved up, regardless of their family income.

Students like Nicole will continue to be forced to make tough decisions about the schools and programs they choose according to how much they receive in grants, instead of what their passion is or what will make them most successful.

Despite the fact that employment rates for students aged 15 to 24 was 49.1% in the summer of 2015, and that youth unemployment has become a chronic problem in Ontario since the 2008 recession, the provincial government expects students to contribute thousands of dollars to be eligible for the OSG.

osg article img

The OSG’s usefulness is also limited because it only addresses one facet of the cost of education— tuition fees. But to attend school full-time, students must also find ways to pay for other school costs, including books, supplies and ancillary fees, as well as general living expenses, like food, transportation and rent. To support themselves, students will have to take on precarious and low wage part-time jobs that often get in the way of studying, or large loans that must be repaid with interest as soon as they graduate.

Students whose expenses make it necessary for them to work full-time and go to school part-time are out of luck, as part-time students are not eligible for the OSG.

“I had to fight to get to where I am now and as a student I feel stuck,” says Janell. “I have no option but to work full-time and go to school part-time. Even full-time work can barely cover rent and living expenses. My mom makes a little more than $50,000 but she has four children to support. I have one placement left and I want to go back to university. They need to do better for part-time students.”

The Ontario government estimates that apart from tuition, other fees and living expenses can make the total cost of education for attending university at minimum $13,200 for students living at home, and upwards of $18,800 for students living on their own. Even students receiving the maximum grant will need to come up with an additional $6,700 if they live at home, and thousands of dollars more if they support themselves in order to study and survive.

In anticipation of this, instead of re-investing in public post-secondary education, the government has placed the burden of accessing education on students by raising its cap on loans from $7,400 to $10,000. This means that a student could potentially graduate with a $40,000 debt load for a four-year undergraduate degree.

Despite the government’s promise of “free tuition,” students are not fooled into thinking that education will be free for anyone. “I’ll have to get a job and take out loans,” said Fahim*, who will graduate from R.H. King Academy this spring. “I know the grants won’t be enough.”

To market the OSG as “free tuition” is disingenuous and fails to address the long-term crippling effects of cutting funds to post-secondary education. The quality of education in Ontario has declined considerably since the cutbacks began in the 1990s, resulting in classrooms with hundreds of students, contract faculty suffering from precarious working conditions, and the lowest per-student funding in Canada. Universities and colleges are still permitted to raise their tuition by 3% every year.

The OSG, therefore, encourages institutions to maximize their tuition fees while implementing a grant system to placate those who will be most affected by the deregulated high cost.

Over the years, the government has chosen to prioritize corporate greed over public services, so much so that our post-secondary institutions can no longer be called “public”, and are now referred to as “publicly assisted” since barely half of their funding comes from the government.

The OSG was created without investing a penny more into the post-secondary education sector. If the Ontario government truly understands the value of “free tuition”, then it needs take concrete steps to re-invest in our post-secondary institutions, abolish tuition fees and make education truly free.

*At their request, Fahim has been given a pseudonym for this article.