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Student debt and class privilege: An open letter to Margaret Wente

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Dear Margaret Wente, 

In a recent column in The Globe and Mail, you argued that the affordability crisis in post-secondary education, in which Canadian students pay high tuition fees and thus take on significant debt, is a "myth." In a nutshell, your argument is that, because half of all students graduate without any debt whatsoever, the debt crisis is not real.

You make this argument by citing the misleading perspective of Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates: "In net terms, Canadians pay zero tuition," Mr. Usher says. "We've got free university and we don't even know it." So much for the affordability crisis.

In net terms. The trouble is that for many Canadian students, the net is irrelevant. Even Usher himself acknowledges that there are tremendous inequalities in this "net zero" tuition, and that it does not mean that Canadians are going to school for free.

For the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the affordability crisis is not a "net" matter so much as an equity issue. "Eduflation," their portmanteau to describe the disproportionate increase of tuition in relation to income, disproportionately affects middle- and low-income families.

Wente, your analytical oversight is in misinterpreting the net to be representative of a general experience, and mentioning inequalities, but dismissing them as a paltry matter because they average out.

Nearly half of students approaching university age in Canada, you claim, have RESPs. By extension, however, over half of that demographic does not have this.

If you throw a party and give cake to just under half the guests, regardless of the average amount of cake distributed being satisfactory, your guests will be disappointed.

Or, for a more visual representation, consider this image, which has been making rounds for some time on social media. While the net height of the boxes in relation to the height of the children enables the net child to see over the fence, it is plainly apparent that there is a significant practical difference in their experiences:            


RESPs help students whose parents have money to invest in their education. For those students, it's a great resource. The trouble is that it is not a universal -- not even close. The same issue goes for scholarship money, which you note has increased significantly since the 1990s. "Merit" is not exclusively a facet of innate academic ability, but also a reflection of a lifetime of the advantages students gain from privilege. My work as a teaching assistant during my PhD has introduced me to a number of undergraduate students from various backgrounds, hammering home the ongoing impact of my own privilege.  

As an undergraduate student, I was comfortably within the upper middle class. My sister and I benefited from significant privileges due to our economic background, and our mother's position as a university faculty member, and these outgrowths of our privilege continue to help me through my graduate career.

Many of my students clearly lack these advantages. My intention here is not to boast about my current position or achievements; indeed, while I worked hard to get what I did, from an equity perspective I certainly would not say that I deserve it. In essence, I climbed an academic ladder that less privileged peers were holding up. The merit-based awards I used to support my education are the product of my class privilege.

From early childhood, we had access to whatever resources we needed to do well in school. When the school didn't have enough textbooks for every student (not uncommon in Ontario schools during and since the Mike Harris years), my family could afford to purchase our own copies. Rather than working part-time and during the summers through high school, my sister and I could volunteer, or participate in leadership programs at overnight camp -- the sort of experiences that impress scholarship judges.

With a parent already enmeshed in the world of post-secondary education, I knew the importance of applying for scholarships. In grade 12, I spent several hours each week crafting applications and personal statements, which my mother proofread for me, encouraging me not to undersell myself. This writing skill was instrumental for my later graduate school and funding applications.

Being part of a university family had another advantage in familiarizing me with academic norms: visiting office hours was natural to me as an undergraduate, after a childhood of trotting around a university department on school PD days, and I was intimidated only by the gruffest of professors. Many of my students will only come to office hours when they are already desperate, and lose the advantage of having cultivated an academic relationship throughout the semester.

My mother could afford to let me live at home, rent-free, which meant that while I worked full-time during each summer as an undergraduate, I worked only limited hours part-time during the school year, and could scale back my hours when my academic work necessitated it. I earned very good grades as an undergraduate, helping me win ongoing scholarships and funding my graduate education. I was obsessive about my academic work not just because of my personality, but also because I could afford to be. I've had students fail to hand in a paper on time because their work schedule interfered, or doze off in class after working a night shift. Some of my students work full-time to support their families, alongside a full course load.

Merit-based awards can snowball -- winning one means having less financial need and therefore less need to work to offset educational costs, and being able to get the grades needed for more awards. These awards meant that my student debt was relatively low, so I could pay it off while living under my mother’s roof during a gap year.

I, like you, benefit from significant privilege. The economic and social advantages of being upper middle class through childhood and adolescence meant that student debt was a navigable obstacle rather than a crisis for me. That does not mean that it is not a crisis for those who are struggling to pay it off, or who fear the costs of higher education so much that they do not pursue it in the first place. In essence, try telling the child who cannot see over the fence that the sight-lines are just fine.

In your autobiography, you say that "a stint of manual labour gives children of the middle class a first-hand taste of how the other half lives." I would like to respectfully suggest that you take a taste of how so many of today's undergraduates live.

At my university, Student Services estimates costs of tuition and living expenses at $7,675 for the average domestic undergraduate. Try covering those costs for four years, working at or barely above minimum wage, and still getting good enough grades to win the scholarships you mention. Try doing all of this without drawing on any savings or family resources. Try this without taking on a penny of debt, and then get back to me.


Privileged and Angry in Vancouver

Leah Wiener is a PhD student in history at Simon Fraser University. This letter initially appeared on her blog and is reprinted here with permission.

Image: flickr/donkeyhotey

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