TORONTO—Ontario college and university students are heading back to school with lower tuition fees, but accompanying cuts to government assistance mean many will have both less help paying for school and more debt.
The Progressive Conservative government announced a 10 percent tuition cut earlier this year while also saying the Ontario Student Assistance Plan needed to be refocused to help the lowest-income students after becoming “unsustainable.”
That refocusing has meant disqualifying some higher-income families—the threshold has been reduced from $175,000 to $140,000 to qualify for some funding—but it has also meant that other, lower-income students who rely on OSAP are getting significantly less money this year.
“It was just the most stressful thing ever,” Daniel Mutton said of the moment he learned he would be getting $5,000 for his second year of studying automotive mechanics at Niagara College—significantly less than the $14,000 he got last year.
“I was so beyond stressed, the feeling was just like, I might have to drop out.”
Mutton eventually managed to secure a line of credit so he can stay in school. With just $5,000 he said he could have paid for his tuition and school materials, but not his living expenses beyond about two months of rent.
The previous Liberal government increased the number of grants and made it possible for low-income students to attend college or university free of cost starting in 2017.
But the auditor general found that costs for that program jumped by 25 percent and warned it could grow to $2 billion annually by 2020-21.
The current government is cutting the OSAP program by about $670 million this year, their spring budget showed, bringing it to nearly $1.4 billion.
Training, Colleges and Universities Minister Ross Romano said OSAP was “ballooning out of control to its breaking point.”
“The reality of the situation is that the former government basically made pre-election promises in spending that were completely and utterly unsustainable on the eve of an election in an attempt to buy votes,” he said.
Romano said he can empathize with students struggling to pay for school because he needed OSAP when he was a student and worked three jobs when the loan wasn't enough.
“I certainly appreciate the concern that's raised from students of today, but I would hope that they share my frustration moving forward that we need to make sure that students of tomorrow have access to OSAP,” he said.
Hailley Guthrie is going into her second year at Calgary's Bow Valley College in justice studies, with a specialization in law enforcement.
She is receiving about $10,000 in OSAP—which is granted to Ontario students for education outside the province as well—compared to the $14,000 she received last year.
Guthrie, who comes from a low-income family, said the funds she's receiving would be enough to cover tuition, books and maybe her food bill for the first semester. But she has calculated that for second semester she will have a deficit of $452.
Guthrie said she will have to work extra shifts or go into credit card debt.
“Even last year with working two days a week I did find it was quite hard to balance getting good grades . . . or finishing assignments,” she said.
“This year I definitely think it will take a toll, whether I'll have to skip out on certain assignments and just focus on the ones that are worth a lot more in the end.”
The Tories have also reduced the portion of grants being offered and are instead relying more heavily on loans.
Joshua Bowman, who is going into his second year of a master's degree in political science at the University of Windsor, said he is getting one-fifth of the OSAP amount that he did last year.
“My grants are almost non-existent at this point," he said. "Almost all my money is in loans.”
Bowman, Guthrie and Mutton all said that the greater amount of loans means they will graduate deeper in debt, and lament that the government is starting to charge interest during a six-month repayment grace period following graduation.
The province has said the 10 percent tuition cut will make school more affordable for all students.
But critics note that the suite of changes most benefit wealthier students, who don't rely on OSAP—they get cheaper tuition, but low-income students get less money and more debt.
“We need to make education affordable and it's just unconscionable that we're saddling this generation with this much debt," said NDP critic Chris Glover. "College or university is absolutely essential now for most jobs and yet students are going to take on debt, low- and middle-income students are ending up taking on debt that's going to take them decades to pay back.”
Universities and colleges are expected to absorb the loss in tuition revenue resulting from the cut—$360 million and $80 million less, respectively.