Rising tuition, student debt weigh heavily on post-secondary students

Facing ever-rising tuition as well as higher prices for food, housing and other necessities, Canadian students shared their costs of living and the financial pressures worrying them.

'It's so hard to get out of university and just start your life with so much debt already,' says undergrad

A male student sits at a picnic table at the University of British Columbia's Vancouver campus. He wears a facemask and has a laptop open on the table in front of him.
Canadian post-secondary students are facing ever-rising tuition, higher prices for food, housing and other necessities as well as looming debt after graduation. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Everything seems to be getting more expensive. Food, gas and housing prices are on the rise while paycheques are slow to keep pace. The CBC News series Priced Out explains why you're paying more at the register and how Canadians are coping with the high cost of everything.

Facing ever-rising tuition as well as higher prices for food, housing, and other necessities, post-secondary students in Canada are concerned about the debts that loom after graduation. 

Five students told CBC News about their costs of living and the financial pressures worrying them.

Nicolas Avendano, Toronto

Toronto college student Nicolas Avendano maintains a frugal lifestyle to keep costs down, but feels there's a lot of criticism about students who aren't 'working and studying every single day, non-stop.' (Craig Chivers/CBC)

Program: Architectural technology, Centennial College

Tuition: $8,000-9,300/term | Housing: $1000/month | Food: $300-350/month | Transportation: $100-150/month | Books: $250/year | Internet $40/month | Phone: $66/month

Nicolas Avendano tries to live as frugally as possible. 

The 28-year-old shares a downtown Toronto basement apartment with a roommate, favours free activities when meeting friends and cooks meals at home after shopping for sales at the supermarket. His parents, living in the U.S., help him with tuition and housing, but he also works a fast-food job to help cover the bills. 

Yet the Colombian-born international student faces tougher decisions these days. Pay for public transit or walk? Start eating smaller breakfasts or perhaps smaller meals altogether?

"There are times when I just say, 'Maybe I won't go out, because I don't have money for that,'" noted the college student.

Avendano believes post-secondary tuition should be more affordable — especially in face of other costs rising so substantially — in order to be accessible to more students. 

Education "shouldn't just be a thing that you can access because you have the money or the economic standing in order to achieve," he said. "I think that's definitely one of the reasons why society is becoming so stratified between the rich and the poor."

Nor should students be forced to live in total deprivation, he added. 

"There's a lot of criticism against young people for wanting to lead full, meaningful lives instead of just working and studying every single day, non-stop."

Dane Monkman, Winnipeg

Winnipeg-based graduate student Dane Monkman thinks post-secondary education 'should be a right for everyone.' (Submitted by Dane Monkman)

Program: Indigenous politics and governance, University of Manitoba

Tuition, books & transportation: $4,000-8,000/year (3 terms) | Housing: $600/month | Food: $300/month | Internet: $50/month | Phone: $120/month

In Winnipeg, 26-year-old Dane Monkman is a graduate student advocating for lower tuition rates. In the 2018-2019 school year, University of Manitoba students saw a tuition hike of 6.6 per cent. For three consecutive years afterward, students saw annual increases of 3.75 per cent.

"During the pandemic we're seeing an increase in tuition every year," Monkman said. "That's obviously coming at a time where things are getting worse — and a lot of the time that causes a barrier for students to access post-secondary education."

Monkman, who is a member of Peguis First Nation, knows he is lucky to have his tuition and textbooks funded by his band. He also shares his off-campus living costs with his partner, but he recognizes other students may not have those kind of financial supports.

Monkman maintains that those in positions of power are making decisions regarding tuition that minimize the chances of lower-income students ever reaching those positions themselves.

"They essentially are kicking away a ladder that will prevent further students from getting into these sort of same jobs or these same positions of power to make decisions."

Monkman has family members who have chosen not to pursue a higher education due to the financial strain it would place on themselves and their families. Some are just out of high school and unable to fathom attending university due to the cost, he said. 

"That's really unfortunate because it should be a right for everyone."

Yasmin Gardy, Burnaby, B.C. 

Yasmin Gardy took out loans pay to pay for her tuition and living expenses, finding support from the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Vancouver. (Jozef Povazan)

Program: Food and technology, British Columbia Institute of Technology 

Tuition & transportation: $7,500/year | Housing: $1700/month | Utilities: $35/month | Food: $400-600/month | Books: $240/year | Internet: $70/month | Phone: $60/month

For students who live in B.C., pressures like rent and food are huge financial concerns.

Yasmin Gardy, 33, chose to live in the Edmonds neighbourhood in the city of Burnaby due to its proximity to campus. With rent as high as $1,700 per month for housing, she took out loans to pay for both her tuition and living expenses.

"I reached out to receive some financial support from the Jewish community here in Vancouver," said Gardy.

Gardy, who emigrated to Canada alone 10 years ago from Israel, turned to the Hebrew Free Loan Association of Vancouver. It's helping her stay afloat in her last term before graduation. 

As for food, another major financial constraint, Gardy again turned to her community for support. This past January, she registered for the food bank for the first time after things became difficult. She now regularly makes an appointment to pick up the basics such as bread, eggs, cheese and vegetables.

"I [had] an opportunity to go to their location and pick up a basket that helps me, as well to reduce the expenses of food for a month," Gardy said.

It's her hope that the government expands the range of financial supports and resources available to students. 

"The biggest one is if it's possible to plan toward having higher education be something that is available for free for citizens and permanent residents."

Gaayathri Murugan, Corner Brook, N.L. 

Gaayathri Murugan says some Memorial University classmates don't fully understand just how much money international students pay. (Submitted by Gaayathri Murugan)

Visual arts, Memorial University (Grenfell campus)

Tuition: $5,000-$6,000/term | Housing and internet: $1,700-2,100/term | Food: $1,000 per term for meal plan, $150-300/month groceries | Transportation: $200-300/month | Books: $100-200/term | Phone: $40/month

The number of international students studying in Canada has risen for years, representing nearly one-fifth of university enrolments until just before the pandemic, according to Statistics Canada. 

Yet most don't truly understand just how expensive school is for international students, says visual arts student Gaayathri Murugan — including those domestic classmates sitting next to her at Memorial University.

That the 22-year-old pays so much more to sit in the same classes came as a surprise to them, said the fourth-year student, who took out a loan in India to pay for her studies in Canada and works several part-time jobs and volunteers on campus. 

Many don't know international students can only work a maximum of 20 hours per week during school, she pointed out, or that they're explicitly excluded from opportunities such as Canada Summer Jobs, a federal program matching students with summer work experiences. 

"I really feel like international students are treated like cash cows and it's just not very fair to us because we are also just trying to get an education," said Murugan, who's hoping to find work in Newfoundland's arts sector upon graduation. 

"It's so hard to get out of university and just start your life with so much debt already."

Colin Crawford, Montreal

Montreal PhD student Colin Crawford is working to start a Canadian chapter of The Debt Collective and calling for student debt forgiveness in order to increase access to education. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Program: Film and moving image studies, Concordia University 

Tuition: $4,760/year (3 terms) | Housing: $500/month | Food: $400-450/month | Transportation: $50/month | Books: $200/year | Utilities: $500/year | Internet: $60/month | Phone: $50/month

"It's just more and more expensive to be a young person in the world," says Colin Crawford, a Concordia University PhD student who shares an off-campus apartment in Montreal.

After working a few years to pay off the student loans for his undergrad, the 28-year-old has been able to secure scholarships to pay tuition for his graduate and doctoral studies. He's held multiple jobs to cover everything else, juggling being a teaching and research assistant with part-time gigs at local cafes, for instance. 

With another two years to go in his program, he worries about further tuition increases along with a precarious job market post-graduation. 

Young people are pushing the traditional markers of "becoming an adult" to their 30s and even 40s, said Crawford, who is working to start a Canadian branch of The Debt Collective to lobby for free post-secondary education and the cancelling of student debt. 

Younger generations are taking longer to even think about starting a family or owning a home, he said, because "so many people are driven into debt or just kind of getting by, paycheque to paycheque."

With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Nazima Walji

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