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Student debt and the high cost of post-secondary education

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A post-secondary education is more crucial now than ever. Employment and economic development depend on it. There’s a great social and economic benefit in increasing public investment in our colleges and universities. Given that, it’s concerning that, according to a recent Canadian Federation of Students BC report, almost 35% of 18-24 year olds in B.C. do not pursue higher education due to financial barriers. For instance, the recently presented B.C. Budget proposed that post-secondary institutions would suffer a $45-million cut in core funding by 2015. When accounting for inflation, per student funding for B.C.’s post-secondary institutions is lower than 2001 levels. Eroding per-student funding has consequently driven up tuition fees and led to the largest class sizes in Canada.

Student debt is a major social and economic barrier to current students and graduates. “Between 1990 and 2011,” states a September 2012 Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report titled Eduflation and the High Cost of Learning, “the average increase in tuition fees and ancillary fees was 6.2% ... while inflation over roughly the same period was 2.1%.” Students are paying more than their money’s purchasing power. B.C. loan interest rates are the highest in Canada and tuition is projected to rise by 17 per cent. This is a disturbing trend for many reasons. Research from the United Kingdom on student debt and mental health, for instance, found that students with great financial concerns showed increased levels of tension, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. Even students with low levels of debt reported lower perceived levels of achievement. Researchers have concluded that debt, even at low levels, can have a detrimental effect on a student’s post-secondary experience.

But there are solutions. The Green Party of British Columbia, for instance, proposes reducing student debt by 75 per cent by converting $1.44 billion education tax credit program into student grants. To ensure students graduating from post secondary studies do not start their working lives indebted, legislation should be introduced to increase core funding to colleges and universities by at least $200 million annually. Also, we should immediately reduce tuition fees by at least 20 per cent.

Over the last eight years, B.C. has the worst poverty rate in Canada -- at 15.5 per cent as of 2010. The financial impact of poverty in B.C. is the equivalent to 6 per cent of the provincial budget, approximately $2.2 billion/year. Research from Vibrant Surrey shows that for Metro Vancouver people between 25-64, 57 per cent have some college education or higher and only 31 per cent have a university degree. Most Provincial governments have opted to provide tax credit for students who enroll in post-secondary courses and programs. However, “While this can provide some modest relief for students who qualify,” notes the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report mentioned earlier, “it does not help with the upfront costs: you can’t pay your university bill with a tax credit.” This is inequitable, because it means that the lower income students who are more likely to take out loans end up paying considerably more for the same education (through interest on their debt) than their peers whose parents can afford the tuition fees up front. There is increasing evidence that high debt levels are an obstacle for many of the highest-needs students as they transition into the workforce and start families, with some often approaching or falling into the cracks of poverty. 2011 data from OECD’s Education at a Glance report shows that out of 25 countries that provide data on tuition fees, two-thirds either charge no tuition at all or only charge nominal fees (lower than $1,200 US per year). We ought to introduce a needs-based grants program to assist low-income students with tuition, where a student’s financial need will be determined by a means test, based upon the students’ finances, not that of his or her family. Also, we should implement a program designed to eliminate the interest on student loans, like that of programs in Newfoundland and PEI, that could be phased in over a five- year period.

Some of the reasons tuition rates are so high are that the institutions are absorbing huge operating costs. This could change. Instead of cancelling classes or raising students’ rates due to major repairs of the school’s infrastructure, we can make use of the Deferred Maintenance Program, which provides state funds to assist school districts with expenditures for major repair or replacement of existing school building components so that the educational process may safely continue. We can also look into creating greener, more energy-efficient, and therefore less costly, institutions through retrofitting and other methods. We should seek to establish spaces in technical schools to train workers to install solar photo-voltaic systems, solar hot water systems, geo-exchange heating and cooling systems, and to conduct general energy audits and perform energy efficiency upgrades.

According to the Canadian Federation of Students B.C. branch, post-secondary education and training is among the most important social programs provided by the B.C. government, and is indispensable to improving B.C.'s competitiveness and standard of living.  In the progressive modern economy, an educated and highly skilled workforce is crucial for success. 78 per cent of emerging careers require some trade or managerial degrees, yet only 68 per cent B.C. workforce have post secondary education. The latest jobs reports by StatsCan shows that about 85,000 jobs were lost in a single month in the private sector. It also found that, where economic growth did take place, it was largely in the “accommodation and food” sector. We are gradually becoming a country which has traded long-term investment in the higher education of its citizens for short-term jobs in the service industry.

This needs to change. To achieve this vision of a vibrant workforce and economy, British Columbia’s post-secondary institutions must be accessible to all.

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