New Brunswick

How a tiny St. Stephen university is offering a debt-free degree

It's the smallest university in Canada. It's also offering to pay off your student loans and living expenses.

An 'unusual' school takes an unusual approach to student debt

Students at St. Stephen's University serve themselves at a communal meal table, part of the school's tight-knit environment. New Brunswick students will be able to apply to have their provincial and federal student loans, plus living expenses, repaid after graduation. (Julia Wright / CBC)

It bills itself as the smallest university in Canada — and New Brunswickers who attend St. Stephen's University may also be eligible for tiny student debt.

On Jan. 11, the private chartered university announced a program that will pay off both the living expenses and student loans for students who meet the academic criteria.

There are no lecture theatres at St. Stephen's University — just small, seminar-format classes in the same building where students live and eat. (Julia Wright / CBC)

It could be a tempting proposition for New Brunswick students, most of whom gravitate toward publicly funded universities. SSU's students hail from far away as Hong Kong and as near as Nova Scotia, but only one comes from New Brunswick.

"We have found it frustrating not being able to draw New Brunswick students," said the university's interim president, Jeremy Barham. 

"We're hoping that this turns that around."

Private donation

The debt-free education program is financed by a private donation, according to Barham.

"We've been wanting to address [the cost of tuition] for a long time, and then finally found a donor that wanted to participate in that with us," he said.

The university's interim president, Jeremy Barham, says the donor who funded the program 'wanted to level the playing field and make [SSU] as accessible as UNB or the other provincially funded universities." (Julia Wright / CBC)

"When our students graduate, often with massive debt, we often see them hamstrung and not able to do the careers that they really want to do.

"We are very committed to working with our graduates to adapt the program so that they end up with minimal debt."

Close-knit environment

Student life at SSU is "a little bit out of the ordinary," Barham said.

The dorms, classrooms, offices, dining hall and kitchen are all housed in one big, yellow house, a rambling former private home constructed in 1867 on Main Street in St. Stephen.

With a maximum of 30 new students annually, and a total student body of just 80, attending the school means embracing a communal lifestyle.

This might be Canada's smallest university and it's offering to pay off your student loans

4 years ago
Duration 1:21
St. Stephen's University, located on Main Street in the town of St. Stephen, itself a tiny community with a population of 3,233 according to 2016 census data.

It's a far cry from the University of New Brunswick, which has more than 11,000 students spread out over two campuses, or Mount Allison, which is considered small with about 2,170 students.

SSU has a total of 20 instructors, many of whom are adjunct professors. 

"I like how small it is," said third-year SSU student Cadi Hardy, who is from Pictou, N.S.

"I went to a really small high school. There was only about 100 people. To transfer into something even smaller was wonderful."

Third-year SSU student Cadi Hardy hopes the program can be extended to students who aren't from New Brunswick. 'To not have to worry about that debt coming out, and just being able to jump right into life after school would be wonderful.' (Julia Wright / CBC)

"We all have lunch together," Barham said. "I like to think that the professors actually become students' friends. …  It's not like being in the back of a lecture theatre, where it's kind of impersonal.

"Everyone will notice when you're not there."

No longer a religious institution

The small student population, Barham said, is what allows the Debt-Free Education Foundation to repay the student loans.

Students can graduate with a bachelor of arts in humanities, psychology or international studies, or a bachelor of international studies.

While the school was founded in 1975 as a Christian institution, it no longer religious, Barham said.

"We no longer feel like we want to be called a Christian university," he said.

"That doesn't really fit who we are … we really warmly welcome people from any kind of background or spiritual perspective."

It's no longer a Christian school - but vestiges remain of SSU's spiritual roots, like joining hands as a group before meals. Instead of a prayer, these students are listening to a reading from the poet Emily Dickinson. (Julia Wright / CBC)

The school has been chartered since 1998, and "our degrees are recognized across Canada and the world," Barham said.

So, how do you get a debt-free degree?

To qualify for a debt-free degree, students must enter SSU with a high school average of at least 75 per cent.

They must also be eligible for provincial or federal student loans and need to have lived in New Brunswick for at least a year.

"I wish it was for people outside of New Brunswick as well as people in New Brunswick," said Peter Fitch, a dean and instructor at SSU for more than four decades.

Peter Fitch, a dean of the graduate studies program who has been teaching at SSU over over 40 years, says the debt-free program will alleviate the 'burden of debt' that has weighed down many New Brunswick students, including his own children. (Julia Wright / CBC)

"That's our dream — to get it to that place."

Students are expected to pay tuition up front — $18,000 per year, all inclusive, with travel terms in Thailand, Cambodia, and Western Europe available for an additional $1,000.

Other criteria include graduating with a 75 per cent average from SSU and completing four volunteer hours in the community per week.

"We have lots of relationships with organizations in the area," said Barham, adding that students can plug in to "various organizations and institutions to get real-life, hands-on experience in serving the community."

Students eat lunch in SSU's small dining hall. In 2019, only one of the university's approximately 80 students is from New Brunswick - something administrators are hoping to change. (Julia Wright / CBC)

SSU also suggests students donate $1,500 annually to the foundation to "pay it forward" for future students.

Six months after graduation, they can apply to have their loans and living expenses reimbursed, Barham said.

For lower-income students, Barham said, the New Brunswick government already "forgives their debt down to $32,000 through the Timely Completion benefit.

The program could make a massive difference for students who "students struggle with the finances both here and at bigger schools," said Hardy.

"To not have to worry about that debt coming out, and just being able to jump right into life after school would be wonderful."


Julia Wright

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is the host of Information Morning Saint John on CBC Radio 1. She previously worked as a digital reporter focused on stories from southwestern New Brunswick. She has a master's degree in English from McGill University, and has been with the CBC since 2016. You can reach her at