With more than 7,300 post-secondary students taking advantage of its two financial tuition assistance programs this academic year, the New Brunswick government is calling the first year of its initiatives a success.
But an opposition critic and student representative say it's a little early to be celebrating given that there are still some issues with the initiative.
In a press release issued this week, the Liberal government announced that close to 6,000 students had taken advantage of its free tuition program for the 2017-2018 academic year.
The program, introduced ahead of the 2016-2017 academic year, provides a bursary to attend a public university or community college for students whose gross family income is $60,000 or less.
Another 1,300 students received bursaries through the province's new tuition relief for the middle class program, which covers part of the tuition costs for students who don't qualify for the free tuition program.
When the free tuition program was announced in April 2016, Francine Landry, who was the then-minister of post-secondary education, training and labour, said the province was estimating 7,100 students would benefit from the program in its first year, and that that number would increase going forward.
Post-Secondary Education Minister Roger Melanson wasn't available for an interview Friday, and his department said no one would be available to answer questions before Monday.
But in an emailed statement, he said the programs have helped 76 per cent of student financial assistance recipients who are attending publicly funded universities or colleges in New Brunswick.
"With these programs, we are making the dream of pursuing higher education more accessible and achievable for New Brunswick students, and my colleagues and I are very proud with these statistics announced this week," he said.
Still some kinks, confusion among students
Samuel Titus, the acting executive director of the New Brunswick Student Alliance, said early indicators for the success of the program seem positive, but noted its still in its infancy.
"Given that we haven't even gone through one full academic year with both programs in place, let alone seen what this will do with a full cohort of students who have had this program from the beginning to the end, I think it's a little bit early to call this program a full success," he said.
Some students have come to the New Brunswick Student Alliance for help because they find the application process confusing, he said.
Since the free tuition program is built into the student loan application process, some students have said they don't understand whether there is a separate application.
"But the application is done concurrently with applications for student loans," he explained.
His organization is also trying to get answers from the province on why there is a credit check involved with the application process, which they believe may discourage some students from applying, he said.
"So I imagine over next couple of years, and ideally over the next couple months, some of these kinks will get resolved," he said.
Tuition rebate program a better deal, PC critic says
To pay for its free tuition policy, the Liberal government cancelled the tuition rebate program introduced by an earlier Tory government. It used to pay graduates up to $20,000 for staying in the province and working after graduation.
At the time, government officials argued it did nothing to help low income students enter post-secondary education.
But Ernie Steeves, the Progressive Conservatives' post-secondary education critic, argues that program did more good than the current free tuition policy, because it rewarded people for staying in the province.
"I think that realistically, I think it's better to reward people for completing a degree, and staying in New Brunswick, which is something we desperately need here in New Brunswick," he said.
"Goodness knows we need to keep our population here, we truly do. That's such a big part of it, wanting people to stay here, and the tuition rebate program gave them a really good reason to stay here and not move away."
It also was available to all post-secondary students, rather than just those who attend public institutions, he said.