New Brunswick

Free tuition program for low-income students falls far below target

Two thousand fewer students got free tuition than the province estimated when it reworked student debt and tax deduction programs last year, Advanced Education Minister Donald Arsenault says.

Some 2,000 fewer students took advantage of new program than government predicted

Donald Arseneault, Minister of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour used Twitter to give out the numbers of students using the government's new free tuition program. (CBC)

The New Brunswick government is confirming that its free tuition program helped 2,000 fewer low-income students than predicted this year.

In an email to CBC News, New Brunswick Post Secondary Education spokesman Jason Hoyt says 5,100 students received the province's tuition access bursary to attend a public university or community college, well below the 7,100 the province was expecting.

On Saturday, New Brunswick Post Secondary Education Minister Donald Arseneault disclosed on Twitter that 5,100 students used the program, but all day Monday his department avoided confirming that number.

"With 9,000 students applying for financial assistance to attend public universities and colleges, 5,100 got free tuition," read Arseneault's Twitter, post which appeared Saturday morning.

The belief that 7,100 students would use the program was used to help justify the cancellation of two other heavily used student debt relief programs.

"It is anticipated that 7,100 students will be eligible to immediately benefit from this program," said Premier Brian Gallant at a news conference announcing the free tuition plan last April.

Gallant said that volume of low-income students in the program would cost the province $25 million and was part of the reason his government was cancelling two other student debt programs worth more than $50 million, including tuition rebates for recent graduates and tuition tax deductions for students and their families.

"[Twenty-five million dollars is] coming from difficult decisions we had to make," said Gallant. "We had to make tough decisions to be able to make the right investments."

Suggested numbers could be higher

Premier Brian Gallant announced free tuition for low-income students in April, 2016. (Harry Forestell/Twitter)

At the time, 23 per cent of all students attending a public university or community college were expected to benefit from free tuition, although Francine Landry, who was the then-minister of post-secondary education, training and labour, suggested it could well be higher since free tuition would attract a number of new students previously excluded from university and community college because of the cost.

"In the first year we are estimating 7,100," said Landry, who suggested it would go up from there.

"We will have an increase as well because students who were not planning on going to post-secondary education — these people might now start thinking about going."

Instead, uptake was well below government estimates.

Hoyt suggested this may have been because the program is new.

"Given that it was only the first year of the program, the number could increase going forward," he wrote.