With news that some Canadian university students are turning to "sugar daddies and mommies" to help pay off their debts, and reports that some are working more than twice the amount of hours to afford tuition costs compared to 40 years ago, it certainly doesn’t sound like it’s a good time to be a young person going to school.
But not everyone is convinced that today’s students are facing a tuition crisis. And some, like Alex Usher, president of Higher Education Strategy Associates, a consultancy that advises universities and governments, believes today's students actually have it better than some in the past.
"I think they are better off than there were 15 years ago and very similar to where they were 20 years ago," Usher told CBC News.
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This all seems to fly in the face of a recent report put out by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which, using data from Statistics Canada, found that students needed to work 570 minimum-wage hours in 2013 to pay for an undergraduate degree. That’s nearly 2½ times more than in 1975, when it was 230.
But Usher said that since the '90s, there has been no real change in the total number of hours students are working.
"I think it’s a dumb way of portraying the data because it’s not the real costs," Usher said of the CCPA analysis. "Tuition is not what anybody pays."
Students paying net zero tuition
In fact, Usher argues that when you take into consideration the number of tax credits and grants handed out each year, the actual net amount of tuition students pay is …… zero.
"What the institutions are taking away in terms of tuition they’re giving back in terms of various types of non-repayable subsidies," he said.
Usher said the government hands out over $7 billion to students in non-repayable funds each year, roughly $5,500 per full-time student. Meanwhile, universities and colleges collect in total around $7 billion — hence the net zero tuition figure.
What these figures do, according to a recent blog post by Usher, is make "a mockery of the idea that there is some sort of generalized affordability crisis."
"Insufficient student aid money is not the problem," he wrote.
There are all sorts of financial advantages students have that they didn’t in the past. Along with grants and credits, parents are saving way more, and a quarter of today’s full-time students are benefiting from the Registered Education Savings Plan and the grants that go with it, Usher said.
Tuition has been bouncing around at 4.5 per cent of average after-tax family income for about 20 years, he said. And too often, statistics are skewed by not figuring in the help students receive from their parents for tuition costs.
Meanwhile, student debt has remained stable over the last 12 to 13 years, he said.
However, it's not all rosy, he admitted. Not all students are assisted by their parents. And that zero tuition figure is an average, meaning some students are facing tuition pressures, in part, because government aid isn’t being equally distributed through all the provinces.
Don't always have to be claiming 'a crisis'
This means not enough of the money is getting to the right students and it should be better redistributed according to need, Usher said.
Still, he says, "We don't always have to be claiming there's a crisis to make better policy."
But go tell that to students burdened by a huge student debt load, says Jessica McCormick, national chair of the Canadian Federation of Students.
"People are still graduating with huge amounts of student debt, so you know the costs have gone up significantly," she said. "There may be some programs available that help some students offset that cost, but many students are still footing a very significant bill for public education that is basically a requirement, a prerequisite to getting a job."
Things like tax credits and RESPs only benefit a certain segment of the population, and often are not helpful to students from lower-income families, she said.
'I think there are two realities here. One is based on numbers and one is based on the actual things that we’re hearing from graduates.'- Jessica McCormick of the Canadian Federation of Students
McCormick said a number of reports and the federation's own research reveal the financial challenges students are facing.
"I think there are two realities here. One is based on numbers and one is based on the actual things that we’re hearing from graduates."
"The reality is that tuition fees have increased significantly since [15 years ago] so the people who are making the decisions about how high tuition fees are, are people who paid a fraction of the costs that we do."