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Digging deep for university

Many students, and parents, are working more and taking on more debt in pursuit of learning

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/9/2013 (1444 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

University of Manitoba student Bilan Arte can't help but take issue with a recent study that suggested arts students aren't getting a good return on their money.

Sure, the fourth-year criminology student isn't entirely certain a career will be waiting in her field of study when she graduates, but her education certainly has value beyond the dollars and cents laid out in a recent CIBC survey, she says.

  Bilan Arte, head of the Canadian Federation of Students��-Manitoba, says an arts degree has value beyond career prospects.

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Bilan Arte, head of the Canadian Federation of Students��-Manitoba, says an arts degree has value beyond career prospects.

The study by CIBC World Markets found graduates from university undergraduate programs -- like a bachelor of arts degree -- not only face some of the highest costs of education in the developed world, they are also more likely to fall into the low-income category once they do find work.

The study went on to suggest more emphasis should be put on producing more graduates for areas of high growth in the economy, particularly from trades and technical schools.

"When you're taking on this much debt, you want to feel like it's been worth it at the end of the road," says Arte, 21, who owes about $20,000.

To hear that more economic emphasis should be put on post-secondary education funding priorities isn't surprising, she adds, but it is disappointing.

"The question that needs to be asked: 'Are we only going to be pursuing the needs that private industry has?' " says Arte, who is also the chairwoman of the Canadian Federation of Students-Manitoba.

"What this whole discussion boils down to is a lack of public funding for post-secondary education."

Arte says the overall percentage of post-secondary education funded by governments has been falling over several decades. As a result, students have faced increasing tuition costs and rising debt loads upon graduating.

Yet the rising cost of education is not just challenge to students. A significant number of parents still pay for their children's college. According to a 2012 Canadian University Consortium Survey of Graduating Undergraduate Students, 41 per cent of grads do not have to take on debt to complete their studies.

While this statistic represents students receiving funding from a multitude of sources, including scholarships, grants and part-time work, about 59 per cent of all students -- indebted or not -- rely on family for some portion of funding for their post-secondary education.

And another recent study, also by CIBC, points to the burden of rising education costs for parents.

"What we're hearing is there is a lot of angst out there among parents about how they're going to fund their children's education," says Marybeth Jordan, managing director of CIBC Investor Services.

More than two-thirds of Manitoba parents plan to help pay for their children's education. Yet many parents, almost a third, will incur debt to help their children, and as many as 60 per cent will save less for their retirement as a result. In Manitoba, about four in 10 parents say they will even delay retirement to help their kids.

Jordan says parents who find themselves in these situations often only started to get their heads around this financial problem once their children reached their teens. They're starting to save much later and, as a result, have less time to benefit from a registered education savings plan (RESP).

Those who start saving early are in a much better position when their children head off to college.

Contributions to an RESP are eligible to receive a 20 per cent top-up from the federal government. The Canada Education Savings Grant will provide a maximum of $600 in grant money, depending on income, for $2,500 in annual contributions to the plan, with a lifetime maximum of $7,200 in grant money.

"The earnings grow tax-sheltered, and they're then taxed in the hands of the child when withdrawn," Jordan says.

Yet, it's easy for parents to get sidetracked. They often have more pressing spending priorities such as daycare early on, and then hockey and other extracurricular activities.

"All of these things get in the way and you find yourself with your children at 13 or 14 without much time to build up that fund," Jordan says. "Starting early gives you more opportunity to grow the money and to take on a little bit more risk for even more growth."

While the RESP is a great savings goal, many parents may not have the ability to save about $233 a month per child for about 14 years to reap the maximum available grant.

Compounding problems for students and parents is every year the cost of education increases -- twice the rate of inflation. Statistics Canada data show tuition has steadily climbed in Canada -- though Manitoba had experienced a long period of tuition freezes until recently. Still, the average cost of tuition has more than quadrupled for an undergraduate program in Manitoba, from an average of $907 a year in 1985 -- $1,763 in today's dollars -- to an estimated $3,729 in 2013.

While Manitoba students pay among the lowest fees in Canada, the cost for an education here remains substantial enough many students are leaving school tens of thousands of dollars in debt, says Al Turnbull, president of the University of Manitoba Students' Union.

"It's becoming normal to leave school in debt about $30,000 or more, and I'm not sure that's something that should become normal," he says.

Moreover, students are taking on more than student-loan debt. They also have more credit card and line-of-credit debt, he says.

"This is something that is well-known among students."

A 2009 study by Prairie Research Associates found nine in 10 students carried a credit card and about one in four had an ongoing balance of about $3,440.

On top of that, they're often working more hours than they're spending in the classroom, Turnbull says.

"It's not only uncommon to not work and go to school. It's uncommon to have school as your No. 1 priority," he says.

"Most students here will be working three to four days a week as opposed to no days at all."

Arte has had to work full time and attend school part time to manage her costs, but she has been lucky to find work with the Federation of Students, a field related to her minor in political science, she says.

She also says she's thankful to live in Canada, where there's an opportunity to even attend college. And she's just as appreciative to study in Manitoba, where costs are lower than most other parts of Canada.

A daughter of Somalian refugees, her family settled in Alberta.

"But I moved from Calgary to Manitoba because fees are much lower than in Alberta."

Despite the bleak statistics set out in the CIBC World Markets study, such as an undergrad's unemployment rate being only 0.7 per cent lower than those with only high school, Arte says it's not only engineers, tradespeople and workers with technical training that will shape the future.

It will also be those with an education in the arts.

"I'm glad I chose the program that I did, even if it is in the arts stream, because it's actually given me the skills to be able to give back directly, and that shows through the advocacy work that I'm doing today."


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