In the midst of a deep recession, families today are facing record job losses, soaring personal debt and economic hardship unheard of in generations. With two-thirds of new jobs requiring at least two years of post-secondary education, investing in higher learning should be a no-brainer for governments. Despite the obvious importance of education and retraining, both federal and provincial governments have failed Canadians by allowing tuition fees and student debt to reach historic levels.
Tuition fees have grown to become the single largest expense for most university and college students, with average fees of almost $5,000 per year. The vast majority of students will face tuition fee increases when they return to school next week. Canadian families are making extraordinary sacrifices to prepare themselves for an evolving workplace. Past decisions at the federal and provincial level are forcing students and their families to take on more education-related debt than any previous generation, all during a time when median earnings for the majority of families have been stagnant for the past 20 years.
The bottom line is that record high tuition fees and student debt combined with the highest student unemployment levels on record are putting post-secondary education out of reach of many Canadians. On January 21, 2009 Canada marked a regrettable milestone when student loan monies owing to the federal government surpassed $13 billion. This figure does not include the $5-8 billion in provincial student loan debt nor billions of dollars in other personal debts including credit cards, lines of credit and family loans.
This year alone, over 385,000 students will require loans from the federal government and the average student will have between $21,000 and $28,000 at the end of a four-year program. Saddling a generation with billions of dollars in debt will have far reaching implications for Canada’s economy and socio-economic equality.High levels of student debt have a direct impact on a student’s ability to succeed. Being saddled with debt reduces the likelihood of continuing studies beyond a bachelor’s degree or college diploma and research has shown that, as student debt rises from $1,000 to $10,000 per year, completion rates for students dependent on loans plummet from 59 to 8 per cent.
Not only is debt responsible for lower levels of university and college completion, but also for causing stress related health problems. Students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to suffer from tension, anxiety and other stress related conditions. As student loan repayment begins shortly after graduation, career decisions for many graduates are dictated by the ability to make monthly loan payments. Student loan obligations reduce the ability of new graduates to start a family, work in public service careers and build career-related volunteer experience.
During these hard economic times, funding high-quality, accessible post-secondary systems is one of the safest investments we can make, and it’s one that generates significant economic spin-offs and reinvestments. Reducing both tuition fees and student debt is well within the federal government’s capacity. Access to post-secondary education is a proven means of breaking the cycle of poverty and is one of the most reliable determinants of a person’s quality of life.
Post-secondary education is a fundamental right and regardless of socioeconomic background and geographic location, every citizen should be afforded equality of access. -Katherine Giroux-Bougard is the National Chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.
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