Debt findings skewed, says student federation

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By Jonathan Colford

The Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation released misleading research on student finances, says the Canadian Federation of Students.

The foundation’s report, titled Making Ends Meet: The 2001-2002 Student Financial Survey, found that 75 per cent of students finance their education by going into debt. The survey, conducted by EKOS Research Associates, was based on monthly budgets gathered from 1,200 students.

The study found that students’ financial circumstances varied depending on their age, whether they lived on their own or with their parents, and did not affect their academic performance.

Students aged 20 and 21 faced an average monthly deficit of $142, not including their student debt, while the deficit for the average student was $56.

It also found that students are relying more and more on private sources for loans instead of government student aid programs.

Sheamus Murphy, a spokesperson for the foundation, said the research helps the foundation fulfil its mandate.

Our study showed a large increase in private debt which previously went undocumented,” he said. “This really starts to compound the issue into something a lot greater than it was.

“We don’t want to be operating in a vacuum. We want to know who our clients are, what are their experiences.”

But the CFS said the report justifies government policy towards post-secondary education by minimizing the impact of student debt, and justifies the continuation of the Millennium Scholarships by saying debt does not affect access.

“The Millennium Scholarship Foundation seems intent on downplaying the reality of student debt in Canada,” said Joel Duff, Ontario chair of the CFS. “They take pressure off the government by attempting to show students can afford tuition increases by taking on greater debt loads.”

Nonsense, said Murphy.

“That accusation is absolutely ludicrous,” he said.

Murphy said the study gives credible facts for policy-makers and advocates. It can only help student lobbyists.

The Millennium Scholarship Foundation was created in 1998 to give out needs and merit-based grants to students. It also conducts research into issues affecting student finances.

The CFS said the government should be increasing funding for post-secondary education and reducing the financial burdens on students.

“Students don’t need more debt management we need less debt,” Duff said.

Because the numbers for student debt are lower than the average $25,000 debt figure the CFS gives for the debt, universities gain arguments to increase tuition fees, said Ken Marciniec, RyeSAC’s vice-president education.

“It provides an excuse for boards of governors which are appointed by the provincial government to raise tuition fees,” he said. “They avoid the obvious conclusion that high tuition fees actually limit people’s ability to attend college and university.”

Murphy called the $25,000 figure “very high,” saying the numbers were closer to $21,000. However, the debt’s effect still depends on how much students are earning after they graduate, he said.

“It’s very high in some regions where students are earning lower salaries after graduation,” Murphy said. “There’s no question that students out there are facing debt.”

Duff pointed out that one-third of the respondents to the survey dropped out before it was completed.

“How could one draw accurate conclusions on the remaining two thirds?” he said.

Murphy said the survey’s results were still statistically valid on a national level.

“That’s fairly normal,” he said. “It’s not a bad rate of attrition. We expected a number of students to drop out.”

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