Managing Student Loans

My experience with government loan programs for financing education has been one of mixed emotions. Coming from a lower income family, my situation dictates that I would be completely unable to attend university without an alternative means of affording my education. For me, the Ontario Student Assistance Program, although my only option, ultimately isn’t my best option.

I attend an institution that is outside of my hometown. This requires that I either find accommodations off campus or settle into a university residence. Financially, the burden is exorbitant and far beyond my means if I were to foot the bill entirely out of my own wage earnings. Suffice to say, I am part of the large statistic that is entirely dependent on OSAP in order to graduate from an institution of higher learning.

The program takes many things into consideration, such as my single mother’s income and my family’s placement in the grander order of things. But, there are significant gaps in OSAP that make surviving as a university student very difficult for me. At the university that I attend, the residence cost is upwards of $5 000 to $8 000.

In addition to this cost is the mandatory meal plan; which costs generally somewhere in the region of $3 000 to $5 000. Already, this becomes a very frightening figure costing anywhere from $8 000 to $13 000 just to be able to live somewhere that ensures I can make it to class every lecture and lab of every day. Of course, these lectures and labs come with a hefty price tag as well; one that tends to increase 4% every year at the university’s discretion. Next year, this cost will likely be in around $6000 to $7 000 bringing that total up to between $14 000 to $20 000 for a single year at my academic institution.

OSAP firmly stands by what seems to have been its motto since the Harris days, to paraphrase, “you are responsible for your living expenses, not OSAP”. Of course, I do concede that the government shouldn’t be obligated to pay for me to eat combo 5 at the campus Chinese food joint several times a week or for my morning Second Cup trip for a large La Minita coffee, but, at a certain point, living expenses become educational expenses; whether the province will say so on paper or not.

Last year, my textbooks alone cost $1 225.23, my course deposit and residence deposit cost around another rounded expense of $1 000. That means that before I even settled into my lovely concrete campus abode or heard the vague warnings of the professors dubbing themselves hard markers, my hard earned, minimum wage summer savings were $500 away from a negative balance in my bank account and had to last me all year.

Luckily, I managed to swing some bursaries my way over the course of the year that paid down my outstanding balance to the school and the $500 was budgeted well enough to pay for laundry, printing and some fruit from the grocery store down the road to wash down the flavour of the fast food menu available on campus. There were grants that also helped me out along the way, such as the Textbook and technology grant and also the income tax benefits every few months; but, like many  students, I wasn’t exactly living the high life when a few pounds of bananas or apples were the highlights of my weeks.

I think that OSAP has long played out the excuse that living expenses are not their problem. Though I am grateful for the loans, I recognize that they really aren’t doing students much of a favour. We students really must start recognizing that this money isn’t OSAP money, it’s our money  (plus prime +1%) in the very near future! That’s not to say that we are completely entitled and should march to the financial aid office demanding that we be able to spend more of our future money (plus prime + 1%) now, but that it is high time that we are given better alternatives to help us through university than loans, lines of credit or working 3 jobs a summer.

The McGuinty government is proposing raising the levels of students in universities, cutting the subsidies on international students’ tuitions and a host of other “solutions”, but, the current students are given the cold shoulder and left to figure out continuing our educations out on our own. Much as we’ve tried to resist while stand at Spadina and Bloor and marching down to Queen’s Park, banners in hand and voices cracking with drop the fees chants, the gaps persist and fees are rising. The policies and mandate of OSAP hasn’t changed, and not to be pessimistic, but, probably won’t any time soon. So, what’s there to do?

Personally, I would like to see more scholarships and bursaries devoted to students that are backed with provincial dollars. Taking steps towards the Canada Assistance Program-type cost sharing to revamp universities. The universities are suffering financially; students most of all are aware of this. But increasing class sizes at already understaffed and over crowded campuses isn’t going to solve the issue.

I think a more stable and long-term solution would be to make students better able to afford university in the first place. Not that students should be able to have the purchasing power of their graduate counterparts while they’re studying, but rather that they have funds at their disposal to be able to afford textbooks and residency more easily so that they can inject more money into the university; as opposed to more people injecting the same amount. I think that living expenses, especially those that directly correlate with being able to make it to class on a daily basis, most importantly residence and supplementary expenses such as textbooks and course related supplies, public transportation and additional university related fees should be considered into bursaries for students deemed at need.