Changes in student aid in New Brunswick that culminated in last month's announcement of a free tuition plan for the province's neediest university and college students is drawing so much money away from other students one of the original advocates for change is calling for a moratorium.

"There are going to be a lot of losers and you probably shouldn't have that many losers," said Alex Usher, president of Toronto-based Higher Education Strategy Associates 

"It [free tuition] looks like it was pretty hastily put together.  Why do it for 2016/17 if it's going to be this jury-rigged and there's going to be these problems?"

Usher wrote a report for the New Brunswick government in 2012 recommending wholesale changes in provincial student aid programs, including substantial increases in grants and bursaries for low income students.

The Gallant government has been pointing to and distributing that report to justify changes it has been making to student aid, including the creation of its free tuition plan, but Usher says helping low income students should not have to hurt so many others.and suggests the province put a hold on what it is doing.

"I think it would be worth their while to think about this a little longer and maybe beef it up a little more and make sure there are fewer losers."

Three funds gutted

The Gallant government has gutted three major student aid funds for university and college students and graduates in the last two years leading up to the creation of its free tuition plan. But after removing over $50 million from those, its plan is to return only about half of that — $25 million — to create its new Tuition Access Bursary (TAB).

Brian Gallant

Premier Brian Gallant announced free tuition for low-income students on April 14. (CBC)

"I would be disappointed if they didn't make it revenue neutral ," said Usher.

The TAB fund is being set up to provide the equivalent of free tuition to 7,100 full time university and communnity college students this fall from families with incomes below $60,000.

But that has meant more than 40,000 New Brunswick students and recent graduates who used the other three funds have lost some or all of their own provincial financial support.

 Coming out on the short end of the changes are four distinct groups:

  • 15,000 university and college full time students who are losing tax credits to pay for TAB but whose families earn more than $60,000;
  • 4,000 part-time students who are also losing tax credits but who are not eligible for TAB funding even if they are low income;
  • 13,000 students who attend private colleges who are also barred from TAB even though they are losing funding to help pay for it;
  • About 12,000 recent university and college graduates who had student loan debt reduction programs abruptly cancelled, also to help pay for TAB.

'I am furious'

"I am furious," said Merrilee Lawrence in an email to CBC News about how her student aid was cancelled in all of the changes.

Lawrence, a Fredericton speech pathologist, is one of those who had thousands of dollars in promised "tuition rebates" terminated when the Gallant government ended the $25 million program in its first budget to prepare for the TAB program.

'We just want what was promised to us.' - Merrilee Lawrence, 2012 university graduate

Thousands of New Brunswick students like Lawrence who were enrolled in university or college after 2005 were told that up to half of their tuition costs would be returned if they stayed in New Brunswick after graduating.

Lawrence says she was herself a low income student when she finally finished university in 2012 with two degrees and substantial student loan debts and was shocked when the province announced it would not pay the promised rebate.

She and her husband are now chipping away at their combined $80,000 in student loans on their own.

"We slipped through the cracks of two programs aimed to help students simply because of the year we decided to go to university," wrote Lawrence. "We just want what was promised to us."

Rebate cancelled abruptly

Usher was not a fan of the rebate program. He proposed New Brunswick eliminate it in his 2012 recommendations to the province and replace it with other debt-relief measures but he assumed government would wind it down over time not abandon commitments it had made to people like Lawrence.

"If the program were to cease to operate, it would continue to carry significant expenditures into the future," he wrote.

Instead it was cancelled abruptly, with more than 11,000 graduates approved for refunds and in line to be paid.

Also severely cut in that first budget was a debt-forgiveness program for nearly 1,000 students a year with government loans above $26,000 who graduate on time. The Gallant government drained millions from the program by changing rules so new graduates now have to owe more than $32,000 before debt relief would begin.

Changes to those two programs alone pulled more than $30 million out of student aid, enough to completely fund the new TAB program with money left over, but last month the province said it will also be cancelling $21 million in student tax credits —also to pay for TAB.

Tax credits eliminated

Provincial tuition and education tax credits are universal subsidies available to all university, community college and private college students in New Brunswick both full and part time.

Similar credits are being cancelled in Ontario to help fund student aid changes in that province, but credits are worth substantially more to students in New Brunswick since rates in the first income tax bracket here are 91 per cent higher, making deductions 91 per cent more valuable.

Saint John tax preparer Sarah Werner says eliminating the provincial credits will raise costs for the average full-time university student in New Brunswick next year by $925. That will be the single largest jump in the price of higher education in New Brunswick since Statistics Canada began tracking costs nearly 40 years ago.

'I'll tell you who really gets burnt — part-time students.' - Sarah Werner, tax preparer

And although 7,100 low income full time students attending university and community college will receive much more in new TAB benefits to compensate for that increase, the tax change will be a straight loss to about 36,000 other post secondary education students, some who are from low income families themselves.

"I'll tell you who really gets burnt — part-time students," said Werner.

"Right now they're getting credits they can claim and those are going to go away and they're not going to be replaced by anything."

That's also what is happening with students attending private career colleges.

TAB demand expected to grow

The Gallant government does not dispute that it has been cutting much more from student aid than it has been replacing but says that is because it expects demand for the TAB program to grow and because it wants to be able to fund other, as-yet-undeveloped student aid programs in the future.

Francine Landry

Post-Secondary Education Minister Francine Landry said the free tuition program for low-income students opens the door to expanding the program to all students. (CBC)

"Savings from the elimination of the tuition tax rebate were re-purposed to allow for the Tuition Access Bursary … Savings from the tuition and education tax credit will also contribute to funding this bursary,", said Post Secondary Education spokeswoman Molly Cormier in an email to CBC News.

"Government expects the Tuition Access Bursary program to grow in future years as more students access post-secondary education … Savings from the tax credits will help fund student financial programs going forward as we continue to review all options for student financial assistance."

Phase-out of grants suggested

But Usher says to him the changes do not appear to have been fully thought out and recommends at the very least government invest more money to expand the TAB program to help more than just 7,100 students.

'There's going to be a lot of people in the loser category.' - Alex Usher, president Higher Education Strategy Associates

He says as currently constructed TAB will pay full benefits to students from families with $60,000 in income, but no benefits if that income is $1 more. He suggests phasing grants out gradually instead, by extending partial and steadily declining benefits to families that make more than $60,000 like Ontario has done.

"They [New Brunswick] didn't use all that extra money to create a phase out. They could have but they chose not to," said Usher.

"There's going to be a lot of people in the loser category and that's why I don't understand why you wouldn't do the phase out."

"A lot of this is about politics and packaging.  Free tuition got a lot of good play in Ontario for Premier Wynne so I suspect that's part of the thinking there. There's no reason to do it this quickly."