Market modifiers proposed to the provincial government raises issues of affordability
Post-secondary students now have the highest amounts of debt in the history of the country, according to statistics, but institutions in Alberta may soon see a tuition increase — while critics suggest a lack of financial knowledge and accessibility are already concerns for students.
The results of the market modifiers proposal from Mount Royal University (MRU) to the provincial government were set to be released on Nov. 17, but now the release date is uncertain.
Market modifiers as defined by the University of Lethbridge Students’ Union are a tuition increase directed at a specific faculty to bring costs in line with costs from competing university programs. Market modifiers were last used in Alberta in 2009-10 under Minister of Advanced Education, Doug Horner.
A protest took place at the legislature in Edmonton on Nov. 17 where 300 students from numerous Alberta universities attempted to get the government to reject the potential tuition increases.
This proposal would see an increase in tuition for three programs: business, nursing and science, but Students’ Association of Mount Royal University (SAMRU) President Erik Queenan is hoping officials rethink the implementation even if the province grants approval.
Queenan spoke on behalf of the student body at a presentation on the market modifiers on Oct. 2, saying the main concerns of students are already affordability and accessibility.
“At the end of the day, it is still expensive to go here, even if it is $30 or $40 less per class than other institutions. And I want to make sure that it continues to be affordable for students,” Queenan said.
National student debt in the billions
According to the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS), an organization that represents post-secondary students at the provincial and federal levels, the current amount of national debt for students is now at over $15 billion.
CFS chairperson Jessica McCormick said that attempts at advocating to both levels of government has been happening for years.
“There’s really a role for both the provincial and federal governments to play in making education a priority and increasing those investments in education,” McCormick said.
She added: “And for both the provincial and federal government to find ways to improve student financial assistance, so that students aren’t burdened with a significant amount of debt after graduation.”
More data from the CFS states that student debt continues to increase by approximately $1 million per day in Canada, a trend that worries Queenan.
“Student debt is impossible to escape from,” he said. “You can default on your credit cards, you can default on a mortgage, but you can not default on your student loan.”
Students lack financial experience and financial literacy
Shereen Samuels, director of student services at MRU, explained that she sees many students come to SAMRU for financial aid because of their financial inexperience, and the narrow margins of error with their money.
“I would say that the number one issue that we see is a lack of budgeting experience and financial literacy. There isn’t one place where everyone learns that,” said Samuels.
“Oftentimes, I think young adults learn [financial literacy] by trial and error.”
Beverly Eastham with the Council of Alberta for University Students (CAUS) agreed with Samuels on this point.
“I think certainly financial literacy is something that is difficult for students to learn if it is not something that their family teaches them,” Eastham said. “It’s not, as far as I know, really covered in course material that you would get in university. It’s something that you are left to figure out on your own.”
Photo illustration by Ato Baako
This can result in lingering consequences for those attempting to get a post-secondary degree.
Lisa Heffernan, who graduated four years ago from the eco-tourism and outdoor leadership program at MRU, is not surprised by the debt statistics.
“I dove into post-secondary with money that wasn’t mine and never really thought twice about it,” she said.
Heffernan said that society has become more comfortable with debt, which ultimately has so many long lasting issues, issues that she is currently facing.
“I take issue with the amount of interest they are charging for a student loan. I’m four years out from school and I’ve only paid back half of what I owe,” Heffernan said. “In part because so little of the payments actually go towards the debt”
Alexandra Gittins is a 23-year-old nursing student in her sixth year of university, and she is experiencing repayment and other debt issues while she is still enrolled.
“I’ve found that looking for apartments and carrying the kind of debt that we do with student loans really affects your credit. No matter where you go, they always do credit checks,” Gittins said. “It was really gnarly trying to get approved. You don’t even really think about that, how that would affect you. But it does.”
Gittins is now paying interest on her $40,000 maxed-out line of credit that she accumulated in her first four years of being enrolled. She was not eligible for student loans because her parent’s income was too high. The criteria has since been changed which has allowed Gittins to receive student loans for the past two years.
But it still is not enough with all of her expenses.
“We all have our expenses. But I have to pick up a lot of shifts to make ends meet, and I have been living at home and I still haven’t been able to afford all of my expenses with the student loans,” she admitted.
Teaching financial literacy
MRU is partnering with a local non-profit called Momentum to provide programs to students on financial literacy — how to budget and manage savings and investments. Momentum offers money-managing workshops to over 3,000 Calgarians every year.
Financial literacy manager at Momentum, Courtney Hare, said that understanding finances is especially important for students, as they are often overwhelmed and undereducated when it comes to financial knowledge.
“Even if your income is a student loan there’s still opportunities to save, to move ahead, to grow your credit score and to grow your assets,” Hare said.
But there is still a threat of tuition increases in the near future for some Alberta universities.
Advanced Innovation Advance Education spokesperson Kevin Donnan was quoted in the Calgary Herald on Oct. 27 stating that there will be a ‘perception’ and ‘feeling’ of programs being low quality if tuition does not rise in this province.
Photo illustration by Ali Hardstaff
He stated, “Education is a competitive market and we have to ensure we’re competitive. It’s no different than buying a home or a car. It’s an investment.”
Eastham disagrees with Donnan, saying that drawing a direct comparison between cost and quality does not make sense.
“There’s a lot of other factors that go into creating quality programs and a quality education and certainly, the amount of money that the institutions have to work with is one piece of that, but its not the only thing.”
Further evidence from the CFS also shows the opposite.
A fall 2013 fact sheet produced by CFS states that reductions in federal funding for post-secondary institutions over the past 10 years has resulted in poorer quality of post-secondary education.
“That is a myth that is perpetuated in a lot of provinces, not just in Alberta — and when we’re advocating for reducing the cost of education, what we’re not advocating for is a lower quality of post-secondary education,” says CFS chairperson McCormick.
She explained that, “When we reduce tuition fees we make the system accessible to people who don’t have the money to cover those costs up front, and it just means that provincial and federal governments need to prioritize education and make those investments in institutions so that they can still continue to offer high quality education.”
Donnan was unable to be reached for comment.
Eastham said that the recent debates about market modifiers conversations are concerning and touch on larger access concerns.
“We want to make sure that all students are able to attend post-secondary regardless of their financial means or their background, and increasing the cost of certain programs through the use of market modifiers may put that out of reach for some students.”
Editor’s note: In the interest of transparency, we feel it’s important to note the Calgary Journal is produced by Mount Royal University journalism students. Ali Hardstaff and Ato Baako are Calgary Journal reporters and MRU students.