Students whose families may appear to have high incomes are "trapped"' when it comes to accessing the Ontario Student Assistance Program because the parents' debt load is not taken into account, says a family trying to finance a fourth child's post-secondary education.

Morgan O'Brien, 19, is an incoming student at the University of Waterloo. Her initial loan estimate from the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) was $3,900, far less than the cost of a year of university studies while living away from her home in Pefferlaw, Ont.

Estimated cost for one year of studies at University of Waterloo while living in residence:

Cheapest residence of double room at Village 1 for fall and winter terms: $5,673 

Meal plan for Village 1: $2,305

Tuition for Faculty of science, arts and health sciences: $6,420

Total before books and supplies: $14,398

O'Brien's parents have already put three children through post-secondary education, signing three lines of credit to help finance their studies.

Three years ago they also had to put an addition on their house to accommodate O'Brien's ill grandmother, which also put a strain on the family's resources.

"It's been a challenge," said O'Brien's father Darren, "Raising four children in these times is difficult as it is."

He got a raise four years ago and the family has been doing much better financially; however there isn't enough to make significant contributions to his daughter's education.

"Over the last four years, I've been able to further myself to work harder to get to where I am, but unfortunately that is impacting Morgan at this point," Darren O'Brien said.

"We tried to go through the bank for a student line of credit," Morgan O'Brien said. "Unfortunately we did not get approved for the line of credit two times."

Debt not accounted for

The initial OSAP application only asks for the number of dependents attending post-secondary education, parental income and student contributions. Debt is not a category on the form.

The University of Waterloo's Frequently Asked Questions page for parents states "OSAP assessments are standardized in order that the assessment of eligibility remains equitable. For this reason, individual debt load is not included in each assessment."

Morgan's older sister Channing said not considering personal debt can trap students that are neither poor enough to qualify for OSAP, nor wealthy enough to have parents that can finance their education.

"My dad cannot afford to give my sister $25,000 to go to school on top of everything else," Channing O'Brien said.

Maureen Jones, director of student awards and financial aid at the university, told CBC News those rules are set by the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development, and that the university 'works with what they're given.'

Appealing decisions

The Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development spokesperson Tanya Blazina told CBC News in an email that "students who believe that their circumstances are not reflected in the standard assessment may request a review of their OSAP file by contacting their financial aid office and completing a review form."

Different appeals require different forms, from lower than expected parental income to exceptional expenses.

"I don't think that I should have to say that I don't talk to my parents any more in order to get a little bit of money." - Morgan O'Brien

Jones said instruction manuals the financial aid office uses to assess those appeals are not open to the public.

She encouraged students to give the school a call if they're worried about meeting payments.

'Baffling'

When Morgan called the university to ask for advice on her OSAP application after receiving a low initial estimate of $3,900, she said they gave her two options.

She can either wait until she is a mature student, so her application no longer requires a declaration of her parents' income, or declare that she no longer speaks to her parents and there exists no relationship where they will finance her education.

"I don't think that I should have to say that I don't talk to my parents anymore in order to get a little bit of money," Morgan said, who finds her two options baffling.

"I barely even considered university up until this year. I mostly considered college because I knew it was a little bit cheaper... I honestly didn't know how I was going to pay for it."

When she made a second call to the office, they encouraged her to apply for an entrance bursary, even though the deadline has passed.

Jones said the university will sometimes consider early and late applications in order to meet student needs. 

Payment deadline approaches

Morgan has less than a month to come up with the money needed for tuition, books, school supplies, rent and food.

Darren said they may have to re-mortgage the house to come up with the money if the number from OSAP doesn't change.

"It would put more stress than we already have financially and emotionally on our family," he said, "We're trying to reach out and grasp straws to help her out in anyway we can," he said.

After submitting final documents to OSAP, the estimate was updated to be closer to $4,900, a thousand dollars more than the initial proposition.