New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant says the province had no money to make a new $25 million student aid program for university and college students more generous, even though it has cut over $50 million from other student aid programs over the last two years.
"We wanted to start off with those who needed it most. We would like to do more but we have to keep the finances of the province in mind as well," said Gallant Tuesday, in response to criticism that new student aid changes are hurting too many and helping too few.
"As we see our finances unfold, as we see how the economy will go moving forward, as we see how we will be able to contain expenses as a government, then we'll see if we have the capacity as a government to invest even more," he said.
Last month Premier Gallant announced a new set of grants and bursaries for the province's neediest full-time university and community college students, paid for with deep cuts to other student aid programs.
40,000 worse off
In all of the changes, about 7,100 low-income students from families with incomes below $60,000 will benefit, while over 40,000 other students and recent graduates will be worse off.
This week student aid expert Alex Usher, who devised a blueprint for fixing student assistance in New Brunswick in 2012, said he supports steering help toward low-income students, but feels for the amount of money government has pulled from other student aid programs it could have designed something that helps a lot more people.
"The real worry that I have and that other people have is that for families in that $60,000 to $80,000 range, they are going to be worse off ... and that's probably not a group you want to hit very hard," said Usher on Monday.
"The value of putting out a bad program this September — you can wait a year and come up with a better program," he added.
Last year the Gallant government cut $30 million from debt relief and tuition rebate programs both designed for recent graduates and used by about 12,000 students per year.
Fredericton's Laura Oldford said she stayed in school to obtain a master's degree because of the promise to rebate half of her tuition after graduation, never expecting the province wouldn't pay when it was time to collect.
"I lost out on over $7,000," wrote Oldford in an email to CBC News.
Then last month the Gallant government announced it will also be terminating $21 million in annual tuition and education tax credits that help cut costs for more than 40,000 students.
The province justified cutting the tax credits by pointing out Ontario was doing the same thing to overhaul its student aid programs.
But records show provincial tax credits to the average full-time university student in Ontario are worth $612 while in New Brunswick they are worth $925.
Extra costs for many students
Michelle Cook, who has two daughters in university and has already cosigned for $30,000 in student lines of credit, said the extra costs will be difficult to absorb.
"It's more debt for us — if we can get it. If the banks will lend us the money," said Cook who lives in Quispamsis.
"I just don't understand how you can put in a policy that impacts in such a negative way such a large percentage of the province."
Initially Gallant said "all" of the cancelled tuition rebate money was going to fund the new program.
Government then said the cancelled tax credit money was also being used.
But since the new program has been given only half of the $50 million that has been cut, it's clear millions of what government initially said was going to needy students, is actually being kept by the province.
"We will continue to see if there is the fiscal capacity for us to invest even more. We're very hopeful that there will be, but we have to juggle a lot of things as a government and that includes ensuring that our finances as a province are at the right spot," said Gallant.