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What to do about Manitoba student debt

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It's no surprise that students today are feeling the pinch. The cost of tuition and ancillary fees, costs of living, and textbooks increase each year but we aren't seeing any substantial increases in the quality of higher education. We also aren't seeing increased wages, leaving a growing gap in how we can pay for school.

Across the country, including in Manitoba, student debt levels are rising. Public student debt now sits at more than $15 billion owed to the federal government and an additional $73 million owed to the provincial government; the average total loans for students in Manitoba is more than $25,000.

Students are taking longer to complete degrees, working more to cover higher costs, relying more heavily on loans to pay for school, and putting off major life decisions such as starting a business or having children.

The simplest solution would be to have fully funded public education with no tuition fees. Until that happens, however, we rely on student financial aid to make sure that those who don't have the money can still go to school.

Manitoba Student Aid (MSA), with a mandate to even the playing field for all potential students, is the main program of help for Manitoba students. It's been around since 2001 and gives out millions of dollars a year, but the funding directions and strategic priorities are set by the government of the day. Thirteen years on, has the NDP used the program effectively?

To answer that we need to see how MSA works with the Canada Student Loans Program to administer all public student loans in the province. Of any given loan received in a year, approximately 40 per cent comes from the provincial government and 60 per cent comes from the federal government.

The most recent MSA report examining the programs covers the 2011-12 year and raises red flags about the effectiveness of the current financial aid program and funding priorities.

The report states that, over the last decade, the number of Manitoba students taking on loans increased by 15 per cent. A much more dramatic jump happened in 2011-12, with loans increasing by 18 per cent. This means that there were almost 20 per cent more students who met the financial need assessment criteria and, essentially, were unable afford their education without financial assistance. That's a clear indication that our education system is increasingly inaccessible.

If we look at Manitoba Bursary, the largest provincial bursary program administered by the MSA, the number of students granted funding over the last decade increased by only 12.5 per cent despite an increase in the number of students in the program (up 20 per cent in 2012 alone). Despite the total increase in the number of students receiving bursaries between 2010-11 and 2011-12, there was actually less money spent overall on the program because the amount that each student received decreased by about seven per cent from previous years. Even though total demand for student financial assistance had increased, there was less money overall within the bursary program, fewer non-repayable financial assistance and more loans distributed. A closer look at the 2011-12 operating budget for MSA reveals total provincial spending on bursaries hovered just under $26.5 million whereas total spending on loans was almost $33 million.

While more and more students deal with higher levels of debt, we're spending considerably less on providing non-repayable forms of assistance.

Marginalized communities, including children of immigrants and First Nations, are debt averse, causing them to self-select out of post-secondary education and go directly into the workforce. The real choice for those who need financial assistance isn't whether or not to go to school, but whether to take a huge financial risk to do so.

We need a fundamental shift wherein we recognize student loans as the leading cause of student debt and commit to re-investing and expanding a comprehensive system of non-repayable forms of assistance, such as bursaries and grants. At the very least, we must eliminate interest rates on provincial loans.

A similar change in priorities has proven successful in Newfoundland and Labrador. Since instituting a tuition fee freeze, eliminating interest rates on provincial student loans, and providing more upfront grants, accessibility has greatly increased, and students are better supported to pursue an education, and gain the skills necessary to contribute without going into massive amounts of debt.

By refocusing on non-repayable forms of financial assistance in Manitoba, we can work towards a truly accessible system of post-secondary education that will benefit our province today and for generations to come.

Bilan Arte is chairperson, Canadian Federation of Students, Manitoba chapter.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 1, 2014 A15

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