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Student aid a "time-bomb"

Current system faces "looming crisis": Educational Policy Institute report

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Student lobby groups need to stop focusing on lowering tuition, according to a report recently released by the Educational Policy Institute.

The report, Student Aid Time-Bomb: The Coming Crisis in Student Financial Aid, says student groups and the government focus too much on tuition and too little on targeted grants. Focusing only on tuition, the report claims, aids only upper- and middle-income students, and does nothing to help lower-income students attend post-secondary education.

"The current tuition policies seem to be fairly slanted towards upper- and middle-class students," said report co-author Sean Junor. "Tuition policies are universal, but at the university level, there's still a wide disparity."

According to the report, universal benefits, like tuition freezes or tuition reductions, over-simplify access issues.This wastes government money by benefiting wealthier students. The report goes on to say: "a tuition freeze is an extremely wasteful and inefficient way of helping the needy."

The report also claims student groups' over-emphasis on high tuition means the public gets a skewed message that tuition is the only problem.

"Their concern, for the most part, is the here and now," said Junor of student lobby groups. "Fundamentally, students have done a good job of hammering home one message, but they look at the issue through one lens and one lens only."

Canadian Alliance of Student Associations president Phillippe Ouellette said the report's criticisms of student groups largely miss the mark by failing to mention student debt incurred as a result of high tuition.

"The report misses a huge part of what CASA advocates for--it's an overall goal, that tuition is too high," said Ouellette. "At the end of the day average student debt is over $30,000. This is a reality targeted assistance isn't going to address. Because the cost of education is so high, students leave PSE with an insurmountable amount of debt."

Ouellette said the report has its positive aspects, noting it brings to light the difficulties lower-income students face attending PSE.

"Students from low income families are 2.5 times less likely to attend PSE," said Ouellette. "The government has been using a lot of resources to target this need."

But, said Ouellette, merely increasing targeted grants, as the report advocates, will not necessarily mean more lower-income students make it to university.

U of C Students' Union president Emily Wyatt agreed, noting that the tuition price tag is enough to scare away students from lower income-brackets.

"We call it the 'sticker-shock,'" said Wyatt. "A heavy emphasis on targeted assistance is great, but there needs to be a balance. A high percentage of students say high tuition costs alone are intimidating and scary."

In addition to universal benefits, the report draws attention to the rising costs of federal student loans, the end of the Canadian Millennium Scholarship in 2010 and the reduced role of the federal government in favour of increased provincial control of PSE.

These four factors need to be addressed, says the report, or the current system of student aid cannot be sustained.

"[T]he system which has been improving may now be headed for deep trouble, and this trouble could mean the reversal of nearly a decade's progress on access to post-secondary education," warns the report.

To read the full report, go here

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