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Ontario's 'benevolence with strings attached' is keeping low-income students out of university

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Student at DEBT Student Masquerade Solidarité Protest, 2012

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I am being denied access to education.

For the past few weeks, I have been in conversation with the National Student Loan Center, Canada Student Loans Services, my local MP's office, among others to try and get answers. The resistance and lack of answers I've repeatedly encountered has convinced me Ontario's student loan system is restrictive and discriminatory.

I have been working full time since I graduated an undergraduate Honours program in 2009 and have diligently been paying my student loan back. I have never missed a payment. When I started my current job five years ago at a call centre, my wage was low enough that it qualified me for a term where I did not have to begin paying my loan. As my wage increased with promotions, so did my monthly payments. Currently, I pay $310 a month to OSAP.

Though I've never regretted completing my degree in International Studies, the reality is most positions now require an additional specialization at the graduate level. Right now, I am not in my field. I am a team leader at a call centre. For the past three years, I've been volunteering with the Canadian Red Cross to gain experience to help boast my resume. 

Finding a job in my field however has proven difficult. After careful reflections, I have decided to go back to school for a technical graduate program and complete a specialization. I have recently been accepted only to later find out that due to the government's contribution to the repayment of my loan over the last six months through the Repayment Assistance Program (RAP) I qualified for due to my low income, I am -- ironically -- not eligible for financial aid.

Without this funding and ability to go back to school, the likelihood of rising above my current wage and gaining better employment gets slimmer each year as graduates with better qualifications enter the job market.

Around 2009, the government of Canada decided that they did not want any student loan borrower to carry their loan for longer than 15 years and redesigned the RAP. In theory, the change ensured that students aren't crippled by their debt indefinitely and "makes it easier for you to manage your student loan debt by reducing your monthly payment."

My income qualifies as low, so I qualified for the assistance program. This seems like good news, but the assistance comes with strings attached. Now I want to go back to graduate school, but benefitting from the program has, without so much as a notification, put a federal restriction on my loan.

In short, I can't access more loans until the balance is paid off in full. Like many people, without access to OSAP, I cannot go back to school. 

The RAP is administered through two phases. After the first 60 months of repayment assistance, students are forced through to stage two at which point the government assistance is applied to both the principal and interest of your loan. Advancing to stage two however also places a federal restriction on your student loan account. This restricts borrowers from receiving further loans and grants until their loans are paid in full, regardless of the status of your loan and if your payments are up to date.

There is no information on your online profile regarding the stages, and any information given by phone representatives is considered, according to the Canada Student Loan Program (CSLP) representative I spoke with, "a courtesy." Students are informed in a paragraph added to their regular letter of approval for the RAP. I do not recall or acknowledge receiving this letter.

In my countless calls to the CSLP, I have asked to pay back the assistance I received from the government in the past six months, but the offer was rejected. In "exceptional circumstances", a student may have the restriction removed. The decision is made through the CSLP, but in my case I was informed that only an administrative error would allow for the restriction to be removed. 

I have looked into funding from the bank, but the maximum funding available is $10,000 a year, which would barely cover tuition and books. If I return to school, I would have to step down from my current role at the call centre and return to an advisor with part-time hours cutting my wage by almost $5 per hour. I would not be able to make up the deficit.

Rather than helping the student, the RAP policies directly impact and punish prospective students who are coming from low-income backgrounds, are single, or who do not have the ability to rely on their family for financial support.

Being denied access to further education significantly limits my chances to rise above my current low-paid job, but the impact of these unjust practices have far reaching consequences and extend much beyond my personal case. This policy disproportionately affects people in low-income brackets, oftentimes women, single parents and people of colour and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

When the benevolence of social assistance turns our social safety net into a glass ceiling, our well-meaning policies must be revised.

Stephanie Langton is a Glendon College graduate who is passionate about making global systems better. She hopes to take this to the next level this Fall with a graduate program in Geospatial Management.

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Image: Flickr/Ryan

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