As a result of cuts to federal funding for post-secondary education over the last twenty-five years, provincial governments and individual post-secondary educational institutions have replaced lost funds by increasing user fees. The share of university operating budgets funded by tuition fees more than doubled between 1985 and 2005, rising from 14% to 30%. This rise in tuition fees has been accompanied by unprecedented levels of student debt.
For more than a decade, students studying in the Maritimes have had the highest average debt loads. According to the Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission(MPHEC), student debt skyrocketed between 1999 and 2004, from $21,177 to over $28,000—an increase of more than 33% in just five years.
In other jurisdictions, pressure from students and their families has prevented student debt from rising to the levels suffered by students in the Maritimes. A massive student mobilization in Québec in 2005 forced Jean Charest’s Liberal government to reverse $103 million in cuts to a bursary program directed at students most in need. Average student debt in Quebec is the lowest in Canada at just over $13,000.
Students in Newfoundland and Labrador have been successful in lobbying successive governments to freeze and reduce tuition fees since 1999. More recently, the provincial government has implemented an up-front need-based grant program in 2007. As a result, student debt in Newfoundlandand Labrador has decreased across the board. For graduates of the one-year programs at the College of the North Atlantic, student debt fell by five percent in one year alone.
Among those who have never participated in post-secondary education, “financial issues” have been found by researchers to be the most commonly cited barrier. As demonstrated below, financial struggles lead to a diverse array of consequences.
Debt aversion is the personal calculation that the sacrifice of debt accumulation and repayment are not worth the return from post-secondary education. When examining the details of financial barriers to participation in Canada, Malatest and Associates found that debt aversion was strong among nonattendees, cited by one in four who said that financial issues were preventing their enrolment1.
More detailed studies on debt aversion have been conducted in the United Kingdom. It has been determined that students from racialised communities and lower income backgrounds, as well as single parents are more likely to hold negative feelings about taking on student debt2. Two thirds ofstudents who decide against enrolling in university say that student debt affected their decision3. Debt aversion has also been linked to decisions about where to study. In one UK survey, the vast majority of those who chose to live with their parents while studying cited a desire to minimize student debt4.
After decades of fully subsidised post-secondary education for low- and middle-income families, universal tuition fees were introduced in the UK. Stark results for debt aversion after Top Up Fees were introduced in Britain led one think tank to recommend that the government “reduce the price of [higher education] because it is a barrier to Higher Education entry”5.
Apprehension about accumulating debt can also have a profound impact on the likelihood of completion. As many students work part- or full-time to reduce their borrowing, academic commitments can become more difficult to fulfil. Other students simply leave before completion at the first offer of decent employment as a way to stop accumulating debt.
Canadian research suggests that debt levels have a direct impact on success in post-secondary education. One study found that as student debt rose from less than $1000 to $10,000 per year, program completion rates for those with only loans (and no grants) plummeted from 59% to 8%6. Similar conclusions can be drawn from Statistics Canada’s Youth In Transition Survey (YITS), which found that of those who cease their studies early, 36% cited financial reasons.
Full-time study is associated with many different pressures and responsibilities. The pressure of mounting student debt and juggling studying and employment are added burdens. Research from the United Kingdom on student debt and mental health found that students with a high degree of financial worry showed greater levels of tension, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping7. Even students with low levels of debt reported lower perceived levels of achievement. Researchers have concluded that debt, even at low levels, “can have a detrimental impact on students’ experience of university.”8
Each year, tens of thousands of students graduate with massive student debt loads. In Canada, student loan repayment begins almost immediately, so graduates are forced to make employment decisions based on what can best contribute to loan repayment. Student loan obligations therefore reduces the ability of new graduates to: start a family; work in public service careers; invest in other assets; build career-related volunteer experience; or take lower paying work in their field to get a “foot in the door”.
Surveys of students in programs with deregulated tuition fees have demonstrated that student debt changes the career path of young graduates. Studies of medical students9 and law students10 found that students expect to seek higher paying jobs in fields or regions that are not necessarily their first choice. Student debt appears to be driving committed young doctors away from family practice and young lawyers away from the public service and/or pro bono work. These distorted career choices have an impact not only on individual professionals but also on access to health care and legal services for all Canadians.
Bankruptcy is supposed to be the last chance for the honest but unfortunate debtor. Yet, since 1998, students who are forced to borrow to finance post-secondary education have been subjected to a law prohibiting bankruptcy on student loans for many years after graduation. In effect, students with debt have been criminalised and are faced with the same type of penalty as those convicted of fraud.
The student loan bankruptcy prohibition targets an already vulnerable population. Those declaring bankruptcy on their student loans before the prohibition was introduced in 1998 were more likely than other bankruptcy filers to: be women; have lower average incomes ($14,000/year); work in low-skill jobs; and have received income assistance11.
A recent study on Canadians and sub-prime lending found student loans to be a major source of concern for indebted Canadians: “Most troubling, it would appear that the debt incurred into for student loans [sic], incurred mainly to secure a brighter financial future through advanced education, seems to be contributing significantly to financial problems experienced by young adults...”12. The authors suggest that high student debt payments and stagnant wages in Canada force many households to later rely on high-interest and sub-prime loans.
Tuition fees and other financial considerations foster an aversion to debt that prevents many students (and parents) from making post-secondary education a priority. Debt is responsible for lower levels of university and college completion, not to mention financial stress that is disproportionately borne by those from low-income backgrounds. After graduation, student debt perverts career choice, especially for professionals, which in turn impacts certain populations’ access to health care and legal aid.
Although the Canada Student Loans Program has been in place since 1964 and tens of thousands of students borrow to finance public post-secondary education each year, student debt is neither inevitable nor necessary. Federal and provincial government divestment from public post-secondary education has led to significant tuition fee increases. Students and their families have shouldered the burden by going deeper into debt.
Reducing both tuition fees and student debt is well within the Government of Canada’s grasp. For example, the $1.44 billion scheme of education tax credits could be converted to student grants, immediately reducing student debt by approximately 75%.