Nova Scotia

Dalhousie nursing students call for more generous student loans, say they get $2K less

Some students say the financial strain is creating food and housing insecurity.

Most nursing students required to have cars, commute to hospitals for clinical placements

Lane Williams says without his 2 part-time jobs, he wouldn’t be able to afford nursing school. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

Some nursing students at Dalhousie University in Halifax say they're being shortchanged on student loans because of the structure of their intensive program.

They say that — added with the unique financial needs of the program — is creating food and housing insecurity issues for some students.

Lane Williams, who is in his final year, describes himself as one of the "lucky" ones because he has two part-time jobs that are flexible and can accommodate the nursing program's demanding hours. The trade-off is 18-hour days. 

"There's some times you're up at 5:30 and you're not into bed until 11 at night or later, and then you're back up at 5:30 to get to clinical again," said Williams. "It can be challenging."

Without the money earned from his jobs as a teaching assistant and a research assistant, Williams said he wouldn't be able to make ends meet. 

$2,000 short in student loans

Recently, the Dalhousie University Nursing Society started to question why so many nursing students were feeling a financial strain. The society discovered they're given $2,000 less in student loans compared to other programs.

Because some of their studies take place in the summer, the student loans program calculates they're in class for 28 weeks — about four weeks less than a conventional school year. While they receive more money for their studies in the summer, it's not enough to make up for the loss.

The $2,000 discrepancy "might not seem like a lot," said Williams. "But when you're a student, in a program like ours where you don't have much time to work, even a few hundred dollars is a huge difference. That's a lot of months' worth of groceries."

Students do several clinical placements in hospitals, sometimes working 12-hour shifts on top of their studies. Often, they need to own a vehicle and pay for gas in order to commute to their placements, which can be in places such as Truro or Windsor.

Anika Daclan, co-chair of the Dalhousie Nursing Student Association, says some students face food and housing insecurity because there isn't enough financial aid in the nursing program. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

On top of that, tuition has increased. 

"In everybody's life, finance is a big, big deal, but even more so when you have an erratic schedule, when you don't get paid for your 12 hours, when you are getting $2,000 less than other people in the university," said Anika Daclan, co-chair of the nursing society.

While there are programs that help cover tuition after graduation, Daclan said students need access to money beforehand so they can make it that far.

"It's a huge impact on us," she said. "There's not a lot of scholarships and bursaries at the school of nursing. That big burden of tuition is really on nursing students."

Premier Tim Houston has been speaking with health-care workers across the province. On Tuesday, he held a virtual meeting with nursing students who raised a number of concerns about their finances. (Robert Short/CBC)

On Tuesday, Daclan and Williams were able to raise the issue of student loans with Premier Tim Houston, who held an impromptu video meeting with nursing students from across the province.

"It was the first time I had heard of it," Houston told CBC News.

"I personally don't think people should be disadvantaged because of the structure of the program, so it's definitely something we're going to look at."

Daclan and Williams said the call became a chorus of students worried about finances. They said some students struggle to foot the bill for parking at their clinical placements, while another paid for clinical placements they weren't able to do because of the pandemic.

Others made the push for more scholarships and bursaries. 

Houston said he's prepared to take action to show health-care workers and students that they're wanted and needed in the province. 

"I was very pleased with the call. I learned a lot on that call," he said.

The Department of Advanced Education told CBC News in a statement that it is open to looking into the loans issue. 

Dalhousie University's bachelor of science in nursing program is accelerated, so students graduate after 8 semesters over 3 calendar years. A 2-year program with 6 semesters is available to those with previous university experience. (Carolyn Ray/CBC)

While it's an encouraging response, Williams said change needs to come sooner rather than later.

"It's really just unrealistic to expect nursing students to continue with the status quo because it's not a system that sets you up for success," he said.

Nursing is accelerated at Dalhousie, with students spending three months in class or clinical placements followed by one month off. Daclan said in the past, students have been told to get jobs during their month off, which isn't always possible.

During the pandemic, she said some were offered volunteer positions.

Janet Hazelton, head of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, called on the province to do anything it can to support future nurses.

"They need to not worry about money," she said. 

Williams, who is from Mulgrave, N.S., said he hopes to stay and work in the province. But at times, the stress takes a toll.

"That's something that actually really frightens me a little bit; there's so much expectations and pressures put on nursing students," he said.

"You're almost burnt out before you get to the floor as an RN — and it's not like being an RN is an easy job either."