“OSAP offers have arrived. And students are stunned at the numbers.”
By Joanne Laucius
Reprinted from Ottawa Citizen
The provincial government’s overhaul of post-secondary grants and loans is starting to sink in for students as they scramble to figure out how they’ll make ends meet with a new school year only months away.
For undergraduate Carleton student Nadia Hansen, the drop in funding puts even more financial pressure on her still-mourning family. Hansen’s father died last January.
She used to qualify for fully covered tuition for low-income families, and got $14,000 or $15,000 each year in grants. Now, she’s only slated to receive about $9,000 — barely enough to cover her tuition, even with the recent 10-per-cent reduction in fees.
“Now (my mother) also has to worry about me just being able to cover my rent,” Hansen says. “So I just worry it’s going to be a lot of stress for her that I don’t want to add on. We’re already still grieving, so it’s just a really scary situation.”
Hansen is about to enter her fourth year studying human rights and social justice. Her parents, both immigrants from Ghana, never had a post-secondary education.
“It’s going to be disproportionately affecting people of colour, people who come from families of lower income, that’s usually people of colour, (and) minority groups,” she says. “At the end of the day I just feel like it’s systematic discrimination. It’s not going to further equality.”
Hansen says she’ll take up part-time work during school, even though she’d hoped to spend her final year focusing on academics.
Shuhiba Mohammad, a PhD student in human kinetics, got the bad news last week.
Last year, Mohammad got $5,200 in grant funding. This year she was offered a $1,400 grant and a $6,400 loan. Mohammad, who lives on a tight budget of about $25,000 a year — she also has a $15,000 scholarship — is not sure what she will do to pay the bills. She’s working on a human placenta research project and has to be available 24 hours a day, so moonlighting is not an option. Teaching assistant work is limited.
“I knew the Ford government had announced cuts, but I didn’t expect them to be this drastic,” she said.
Students across the province have had the same reaction.
The changes to OSAP were part of a package of post-secondary announcements released in January, including mandating a 10-per-cent tuition cut from all post-secondary institutions. The Progressive Conservative government also announced that in the coming school year, it would ensure 82 per cent of grants will go to students with a family income of less than $50,000, up from 76 per cent.
Lowering tuition would help all students across the province, the government has argued. But some students say reductions to grants mean they’re actually further behind. The issue has generated a Twitter storm as students posted comparisons of what they will be getting this year compared with last.
“This year OSAP doesn’t even cover my tuition, the grant is nothing and the loan is huge. Last year, OSAP covered my tuition, plus living expenses, the grant was bigger than the loan,” tweeted Andrea Boscán.
“I lost half of my funding, and now the funding doesn’t even cover tuition. Screw the younger generation, right?” tweeted Tara Campbell.
Felipe Nagata, chairman of the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario, which represents 350,000 college and university students in the province, said the anecdotes he has heard have been “very scary.” Students have only a few more months until the academic semester begins. Some are looking to pick up second or third jobs. Others will spend longer in school in order to work, or are postponing school.
Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, which advises universities, governments and other agencies, said these kinds of cuts were not unexpected. “The budget was pretty clear that the cut to OSAP was about $600 million, or about 40 per cent.”
Students who receive student aid will almost certainly all be worse off under the new system because the cut to grants will be larger than the cut to tuition, he said. The only students who are better off are those who do not use student aid, mainly students from wealthy backgrounds. The current family income threshold for eligibility is about $170,000, so everyone above that comes out ahead.
But the government argues that the changes to OSAP introduced in 2017 by the previous Liberal government to make post-secondary education more accessible and affordable for students from low and middle-income families were just not sustainable.
The 2017 changes provided a larger percentage of financial aid in the form of non-repayable grants rather than repayable loans — 98 per cent in grants in the 2017-18 academic year, compared with 60 per cent the year before, according to the Auditor General’s 2018 report. Although more people were getting financial aid — two per cent more university recipients and two per cent more college recipients — the increase in enrolment was only one per cent for universities and two per cent for colleges, “indicating that the number of people accessing higher education is not commensurate with the additional OSAP funding.”
The changes introduced in 2017 were expected to have a positive impact on the province’s finances, with additional revenue from the elimination of Ontario’s Tuition and Education Tax Credits expected to more than offset any increased costs of the changes to OSAP, noted the auditor general’s report. However, the uptake of financial aid in the form of grants exceeded expectations, resulting in projections that OSAP could cost $2 billion annually by the 2020-21 fiscal year, a net increase of 50 per cent from the 2016-17 fiscal year.
In a statement, Ross Romano, the new minister of training, colleges and universities, said the government is committed to restoring financial sustainability to OSAP to ensure the program supports the future generations of students who need it the most.
“Reducing tuition and increasing the affordability of college and university will help Ontario students get the education and training needed for the well-paying jobs in our modern economy. We also committed to restoring financial sustainability to OSAP, to ensure the program supports the future generations of students who need it the most.”
Mohammad said she already has $40,000 in loans and doesn’t want to add to it. “I can’t afford to keep adding to it. If I keep adding to my loan, I’ll never be able to buy a home or start a family,” said Mohammad.
She has her parents’ support, but she’s also one of four children, two of whom are still in university, with a younger brother still in high school. “I’m almost 30 years old. I can’t ask them for more money. They’re strapped.”
Ottawa Centre NDP MPP Joel Harden said his office has been flooded with complaints. He takes issue with how quickly the province has implemented the changes.
“These last-minute decisions have had an enormous impact on people’s lives,” he said. “This is keeping people up at night.”
With files from Jacob Hoytema
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