The Canadian Federation of Students wants to put growing education debt on the federal election radar and says other governments should follow Newfoundland and Labrador's shift to student grants instead of loans.
"We have a crisis in Canada when it comes to overall student debt burdens," said national chairperson Bilan Arte.
"Without a deliberate, national plan around post-secondary education and youth employment, we are going to see this generation failed again," she said in an interview.
"As students, we cannot stand for that."
Daniel Rumbolt is about to start his fourth year at Memorial University of Newfoundland in fine arts and hopes to become a professor. He works three part-time jobs in addition to a full course load. Still, he expects to rack up about $16,000 in student loans by next spring, he said in an interview.
Provincial grants will save him at least $3,000. Rumbolt said it's a huge morale boost that's inspiring students to stay in the province after graduation.
"I think people are becoming more and more motivated to support the province that's supporting us."
Current loans system stifling graduates, says CFS
Arte said Newfoundland and Labrador's shift to grants should be copied across the country. She called the current system of federal and provincial funding an "ineffective" approach that's putting higher learning out of reach as graduates shoulder historic debt loads.
The federation argues what is now spent running the Canada Student Loans Program, related tax credits and savings schemes should be shifted to up front grants.
Many graduates are typically too broke to even think about cars, houses or other economy-driving investments, Arte said.
"We're just thinking about how to pay next month's bills."
The federation tracks national statistics on post-secondary debt, ranging from an average of about $13,000 in Quebec to $28,000 and higher in Ontario and the Maritimes. Amounts can be far higher depending on the course.
Protests and political pressure over the last decade have helped curb or freeze tuition hikes in provinces such as Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador.
"Our priority is that Newfoundland and Labrador students have access to high quality post-secondary education at an affordable cost to enhance their employment prospects," Clyde Jackman, advanced education and skills minister, said in a statement.
The province leads the country, he said, in what he called "progressive student aid policy reform." It began in 2007 to replace loans with needs-based, non-repayable grants, completing the transition on Aug. 1.
Incentives for students "backwards," says union
The system will cost around $12.5 million per year over the next four years and help about 7,000 students each year, Jackman said. That support is on top of the $337 million the province has invested since 2005 to freeze tuition for students at Memorial University and College of the North Atlantic.
Jackman said those efforts dovetail with the Progressive Conservative government's strategy to attract new residents and reverse declining population trends.
It remains to be seen whether other provinces and the federal government, which provides the bulk of student loans, will change course. Skeptics say provinces such as B.C. and Ontario already provide significant bursaries and that grants aren't the best approach.
"The incentives are backwards," Kevin Lacey, Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said in an interview.
"Loans force people to think about how they'll pay the money back, which pushes them into professions and programs that will allow them to make money when they're out of university."
Nor is Lacey convinced Newfoundland and Labrador's investments will boost its economy or population.
"The only way you're going to do that is if there's jobs. And the better way to create jobs is to ... have lower taxes and less regulatory regimes."