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Paying for university 101

U of W pilot program to give students a degree of financial knowledge

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Priscilla Maud has learned a lot at university -- more than just what she's picked up in class.

The fourth-year double major in aboriginal governance and conflict resolution studies enrolled at the University of Winnipeg in 2008.

"I wasn't knowledgeable about the history," says the 38-year-old single mother of four daughters ranging in age from four to 18.

"I didn't feel I knew enough to contribute to the conversation when it came to politics."

She feels much more confident in a discussion about politics these days, but she's also more adept at balancing a budget, cutting costs and finding extra money here and there to get through the school year.

"I think I've tapped into a few good years of finding good resources," she says.

Part of her cost of schooling is covered by her band, Sknownan First Nation, about 350 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg. She also has two types of loans with her financial institution and receives Manitoba Student Aid (government-sponsored student loan).

Her advice to aspiring students: Apply for as many bursaries and scholarships as you can.

"There's a lot of work involved in finding money for scholarships and bursaries," she says, adding one application takes about 12 hours. "You have to pay to get those transcripts and then get the references, and you have to be able to manage to work on that on top of your studies and taking care of your family."

But it has been worth the effort. Maud has received about $30,000 in scholarships and grants over three years of study.

While she is well-versed in the trials and tribulations of financing a university degree, many other students often struggle to strike a balance between studies and managing their money.

They often can overlook available financial supports beyond student loans, says Kam Holland, director of awards and financial aid for student services at the University of Winnipeg.

"There is a lot of misguided thinking among students that if you don't get a scholarship, it's not worth applying for anything," says Holland, whose department helps students navigate financial aid.

Each year at the U of W, students apply for and receive more than $7 million in student loans and about $3.2 million in scholarships and bursaries.

Holland has been working at the U of W for about a year, having previously worked at York University in Toronto.

There, too, students often overlooked grants and other financial assistance available to them, including a scholarship for $45,000.

"Out of 50,000 undergrads at York, five people applied for that scholarship," Holland says.

Bursaries and scholarships likely will be a topic in a U of W pilot program this fall. It aims to upgrade students' financial literacy.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada (FCAC), the federal department responsible for promoting financial literacy, developed the program, called Financial Basics. Menno Simons College economics and international development studies professor Jerry Buckland will teach each of the three one-day, four-hour courses during the fall term.

 

Students who sign up will get $50 and a free meal.

"Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of interest from young people to manage their money, even though they don't have much of it," Holland says.

The pilot program is a new direction for the university; an effort to address the reality students are faced with more complex financial decisions than in years past -- largely the result of increasing tuition, books and housing costs.

"In general, there has been an increased awareness of the responsibility of universities and colleges to provide financial literacy to students," Holland says.

"We wanted to sit down with students and say, 'This is real. This is how much school will cost.' "

The average cost, including tuition, books and living expenses, for a four-year degree is more than $32,000 at the U of W.

Although it's much less than the national average of about $84,000 for a degree away from home, according to a report by TD Economics, students still need more financial know-how than ever before to pay for their education, says Shahz Beig, associate vice-president of personal lending at TD Canada Trust.

After all, post-secondary education is one of the largest and best financial investments they'll ever make.

"It raises their marketability in the labour market and, for the vast majority of individuals, it raises their standard of living over a lifetime," Beig says.

"The average annual return on this investment is 10 per cent or higher over their careers."

Yet it's also costly and often requires going into debt.

Beig says one recent study found undergrads graduate about $27,000 in debt.

"And it's becoming increasingly more difficult for parents to help children fund their post-secondary education," he says, citing a recent survey that found 88 per cent of parents want to help their children with post-secondary education.

"But 80 per cent of them say they have not saved enough money."

Still, parents and students have a number of ways to help cover the cost.

First and foremost, start saving early -- advice that applies more to parents.

"The single best way to save is what's referred to as an RESP, which is a Registered Education Savings Plan," Beig says. "The savings grow on a tax-deferred basis, and even when they are withdrawn, they're taxed in the student's hands, generally at a lower rate."

Best of all, the federal government provides a matching grant of 20 per cent or more, depending on family income, up to $2,500 of annual contributions. Students can receive as much as $7,200 in federal grants for RESP savings over their lifetime.

As previously mentioned, scholarships, awarded on academic performance, and bursaries, awarded based on need, also help bridge the money gap.

Summer jobs and part-time work during the school year can help pay living costs and tuition. Many schools even have employment programs to place students with part-time work.

"If all else has been done and there's still a gap, then there are financing options," Beig says.

Manitoba Student Aid provides loans 2.5 per cent above the prime rate. Interest isn't charged until students graduate, and they don't have to make payments for six months after graduation, Holland says.

One province has even gone a step farther. Prince Edward Island recently announced it will not charge interest on student loans -- a good thing, Holland says.

"Otherwise, the government is actually making money on loans when students are paying them back."

Banks and credit unions will lend to students at rates even lower than the provincial aid program. Most offer student lines of credit for undergrads at one per cent plus prime, Beig says. And students can borrow upward of $40,000, paying only interest while in school.

"While we never encourage students to take on debt, obviously the reality is that they may need to," Beig says.

Financial assistance is fine and good, but Maud says plenty of other resources are available, such as assistance finding affordable housing and daycare, that may not directly put more money in the bank account, but they help all the same.

It's just a matter of knowing they're out there and applying.

"They're all for your benefit to help you succeed, and I've utilized almost every program that has been available."

giganticsmile@gmail.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 25, 2012 B10

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