As Ontario students prepare to take their fight for free tuition for low-income students back to Queens Park Monday, never-released government data obtained by CBC News shows the popularity of the now-cancelled program.
The new Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) program created in March 2017 paid for average college or university tuition of students from families with incomes of $50,000 or less. Some students from families with incomes of up to $83,000 could also qualify for the non-repayable grants.
Although it was pitched as free, recipients still had to pay additional costs such as books and living expenses.
In some colleges, nearly three-quarters of full-time students had their tuition paid in the first year of the program, according to CBC’s analysis of figures provided by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities.
234,000 students got grants
Overall, the program issued non-repayable grants to more than 234,000 students across Ontario in the first year. That’s 40 per cent of the full-time, domestic student enrolment of 593,296. The Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities could not provide comparative figures for the school year 2018-19, as it is still ongoing.
Greater Toronto-area colleges such as Centennial, George Brown and Seneca were among the 10 schools with the biggest proportion of students benefiting from the program, while the University of Ottawa and Queen’s University had the smallest percentages.
Colleges topping the list
Student financial aid expert Alex Usher says this new data suggests Ontario’s free tuition program worked for students from low-income backgrounds, as they seemed more likely to be issued full grants.
Usher says the data also highlights how different the mix of students in colleges and universities can be, with older and lower income students more likely to be attracted to the more applied college programs.
Ontario’s free tuition program estimated that average college tuition was $2,768 and average university tuition was $6,160, for comparable arts and science programs.
“Colleges have tuition fees that are generally half the amount of the university sector,” says Glen Jones, professor of higher education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.
School administrators not surprised
The president of Loyalist College in Belleville, which sits at the top of the list in terms of proportion of students receiving free tuition, with 73 per cent of students fully funded, said she was “not really surprised” by CBC’s figures.
Ann Marie Vaughan says up to 80 per cent of the college’s students receive some form of financial aid.
She says many students are the first in their families to attend a post-secondary institution, and they depend on financial aid as they are older students, sometimes with children, or their families are not as well off.
“We do have a fairly significant Indigenous population here as well,” says Vaughan. “Many of our students require financial support, and that’s also related to the general income levels of the region.”
She says the school’s financial aid department expects to see calls and inquiries rise this week, as many have just received their admissions letters from colleges.
George Brown College says there’s a lot of uncertainty.
“We are concerned about the impact the recently announced changes to OSAP will have on our students,” wrote the college’s special adviser to the president, Adrienne Galway, in a statement.
The Ford government said it would replace the program with an across-the-board tuition fee cut of 10 per cent. Students with a family income below $50,000 will receive 83 per cent of grants, but no students will receive grants alone. Instead, they will get a mix of grants and loans.
A half dozen school administrators whose students top the list of free tuition recipients told CBC that it was too soon to measure the impact the changes might have on campus.
Several mentioned they have been invited by the Ontario government to attend meetings to walk them through the changes. The Ministry of Technology, Colleges and Universities confirmed private technical briefings were set up for institutions, but did not provide CBC with more details.
Students are worried
For Mohammad Hossain, the worrying has already started.
After years spent shuttling students around as an Uber driver, the 40-year-old immigrant from Bangladesh went back to school full-time at Centennial College last month to train as a software developer.
A dramatic career change he said would never be possible without the free tuition program.
“I couldn’t afford that. Based on the fees and expenses, we could never ever think of it.”
The father of two says he feels “worried, very sad and disappointed” to hear his dream of a new job — and a higher salary — might end with the Ford government’s changes. He says loans are not an option for his family and he might drop out.
“I’m really disappointed and now I’m worrying. How am I going to pay $5,000 to Centennial? I don’t have any family here. I can’t ask friends for money.”
He’s far from the only student who depends on financial aid. In a statement to CBC, Centennial College said that nine out of 10 of its students depended on some form of financial aid, including loans.
Even though details of the changes have yet to be announced, Usher says older, low-income students like Hossain will likely lose funding and have tough choices to make.
“People who have been out of education maybe for 20 years are much more price sensitive,” says Usher. “The opportunity cost of going to school is more, and they’ve got less time to win back their investment. Those are serious considerations.”
Numbers show free tuition was needed, says student leader
“These numbers just add more concern to the government’s plan to change the system,” says Nicole Desnoyers from the Ontario chapter of the Canadian Federation of Students.
Desnoyers says the program improved the quality of life of many students.
“We need to be looking at currently enrolled students. How many of them were able to quit a part-time job and focus solely on their studies because of this grant? How many of them didn’t need to access mental health resources this year because they weren’t worried about making ends meet?”
The current Conservative government said it ended the program because it was unsustainable, costing $1.4 billion in the first year.
Usher says the Liberal government failed to collect the right data to evaluate the success of its program.
“There’s a lack of data,” he said. “That’s where the previous government 100 per cent fell down. They never put in place any kind of monitoring that would let them know who is the additional student who’s coming.”
And without comparable figures from previous school years, it’s very difficult to know how many low income or vulnerable students received financial aid for the first time, he says.
According to the auditor general’s December 2018 report, although 24 per cent more university students and 27 per cent more college students were issued financial aid in the 2017-18 academic year, the total number of students accessing higher education for the first time stayed virtually the same.