By Valerie Dittrich
Two years ago when the previous Ontario government announced the new free tuition program, Alexus Newman was ecstatic. As an Indigenous student who had to support not only herself but her family, the extra money meant she was able to go to university without worrying about the cost.
Following the Doug Ford government’s recently-announced rollbacks to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) grants, the first-year social work student is afraid she won’t have the funds to finish.
Over 210,000 students benefited from the program in its first year, according to a press release by the previous Ontario Liberal government. Under the new framework, students from a family with an income of $50,000 must have at least 10 per cent of their assistance come in the form of a loan.
“That extra grant was literally what enabled me to survive,” Newman said. “I could actually go to school without having to live through so much debt and never be able to get myself out from under it.”
When the news of the cut to the free tuition program broke, Newman said she was furious. “I [knew I] would no longer be able to be a part of anything because I just won’t be able to afford school or my rent and I’d most likely have to move back home.”
“That extra grant is literally what enabled me to survive”
Newman supports her widowed mother, who has multiple sclerosis and lives in Newman’s home town of Cambridge, Ont. She says she doesn’t have “much of a community to back her up,” as resources in her area for Indigenous students are “really low.” Along with the proposed OSAP rollbacks, she said her “entire life crumbled.”
Newman isn’t the only one feeling the pressure from Ford’s announcement. The Eyeopener previously reported that over 14,500 Ryerson students benefited from the program in the 2018-19 year. The proposed changes to tuition fees and OSAP grants go into effect for the 2019-20 academic year.
Second-year Ryerson social work student Rachel Archibald said she felt worried about paying for rent and school when she graduated high school. However, the grant she received allowed her to pay tuition and help cover some of her $1,400 monthly rent at Parkside Student Residence near Ryerson campus.
Archibald receives a grant to cover the cost of her tuition along with a loan for living expenses. “It was easier for me to handle,” she said.
Archibald said the free tuition program was vital to her being able to move away from her single-family household in St. Catharines, Ont. to attend Ryerson. Although she considers herself lucky to have some support from her mother and grandmother, it still wouldn’t be enough to cover all of her fees and she might have to put her degree on hold for a year to pay off her loans, she said.
Simon Farrington, a first-year psychology student, said part of the reason he went back to school after graduating from OCAD in 2005 was because he qualified for the free tuition program. “Tuition has gone up quite a bit from when I was last in post-secondary. My total tuition was about $3,000 a year. And now I think it’s up around [$9,000].”
Farrington said he wasn’t shocked to hear the news—as a returning student, he said he’s grown to “expect” drastic rollbacks to financial aid. “It’s not preventing my access to education, but it’s certainly changing the outcome in terms of the debt load that I’m going to be carrying.”
According to the Ontario auditor general’s 2018 annual report, the previous OSAP plan would cost the province about $2 billion by 2020. Carleton University associate business professor Ian Lee said the free tuition program wasn’t sustainable—however, he said he thinks the government should still provide grants to students who are struggling.
“The program went off the rails. It was giving far too much assistance to people who did not need help, instead of targeting the money exclusively on those that did need help,” Lee said.
“I just wish [Ford would] understand that he’s not doing anything right”
“Of course, low income people should not be paying tuition,” he said. “We’re gonna have to make tough choices and say, ‘look, we’re going to make sure we protect the people at the bottom.’”
Gyllian Phillips, president of the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, says while these cuts will affect all students who received free tuition, students from low-income households will suffer the most.
“There’s no doubt this is going to have an adverse effect on students being able to complete degrees to get access to education in the first place,” she said.
Incurring large amounts of debt will limit students from having economic independence, she added. “We know [when] folks graduate with these massive debts, it takes much longer to have a start economically, especially in an unchangeable job market.”
Archibald and Newman said they live in fear of having to take time off of school to work to pay debts—or not being able to finish their degrees at all.
“I just wish [Ford would] understand that he’s not doing anything right,” Newman said. “When so many students online are talking about protesting [this], obviously you’re doing something wrong.”