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Ontario students were already loaded with debt. The province’s OSAP changes may make things worse

Ontario students were already loaded with debt. The province’s OSAP changes may make things worse
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One year ago, Caitlin Chee made a tough decision that would require major lifestyle changes. The Toronto Rape Crisis Centre counsellor and board member decided to go back to school at age 29 to pursue a second bachelor’s degree in social work, a field more relevant to the work than Chee’s environmental science degree.

Chee dropped to part-time work hours while taking three courses at a time online at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia.

But with changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) now in place for this fall semester, the amount of assistance Chee received dropped significantly, and the 30-year-old has had to switch to working full time, dropping down to just one course per term.

Under the new rules, grants are reduced so students have to rely more on loans that must be repaid with interest, and some grants students received in the past are being retroactively converted into loans. The government says it is increasing the share of funding to lower-income families, but critics say the pot of funding overall has not increased, and so many students are receiving less money than expected. Tuition fees are also being cut by 10 per cent.

For Chee, tuition is covered by OSAP this term but just $300 is left over for textbooks and living expenses, a gap part-time work can’t fill. Last year there was still $1,100 left after tuition.

“Before, I was planning on graduating at the end of next year,” Chee said. “Now, I honestly don’t know when I’m ever going to finish. It’s going to take years.”

Because Chee’s school is out-of-province and because it’s a second-entry program (requiring a few years in university already), the new rules also say at least half of the OSAP money must be loans that have to be repaid with interest, rather than grants the student gets to keep.

“It was a very hard decision, knowing how much I was going to have to change my life, that I was going to have to live very cheaply for a couple of years, go down to working part-time,” Chee said. “Now to know that that whole plan might not work and maybe that year-and-a-half that I spent working really hard on this might be for nothing, it’s really sad.”

As many students head back to class next week, the changes to their OSAP funding could exacerbate the struggles surrounding student debt in Ontario, which is already a “massive problem,” said Douglas Hoyes of Hoyes, Michalos & Associates Inc.

The bankruptcy and debt relief firm released a report this month finding that more than one in six (17.6 per cent) insolvencies reported in Ontario in 2018 were for people struggling with student loans. Seven years ago, when the company first began tracking it, that number was 13 per cent, and it has been rising every year, Hoyes said.

The average student debtor owes $46,373 in unsecured loans, including $14,729 in student debt, and is more likely to be female, and more likely to be single, the report found.

“One of the problems I see is that the rules keep changing,” Hoyes said. “It’s like I’m driving along on the highway then the speed limit’s 20, then the speed limit’s 50. How as a student am I supposed to know what’s going to happen tomorrow?”

Hoyes points to a two main changes that could upend the financial planning many students had done beforehand: the retroactive conversion of grants to loans, and the fact that interest will now start being calculated on loans right after graduation rather than after a six-month grace period.

“There will be even more people getting into trouble with student loans because they have to start incurring interest that much quicker, which is just going to make the loan balances bigger,” Hoyes said.

Student debt insolvencies are also starting to happen sooner after graduation. While those declaring bankruptcy over student debt are most likely to be in their 30s, about a third are between 18 and 29, the study says.

The reason why most are in their 30s, Hoyes said, is because there is a seven-year waiting period before government-guaranteed student loads can be discharged in a bankruptcy or consumer proposal (private student debt and other types of loans are not subject to this waiting period).

“We are punishing students where we don’t punish anyone else. That’s just not fair,” Hoyes said.

It doesn’t help that tuition keeps rising. In Ontario, the average tuition for university was $8,838 for 2018-19, up an average of 4.6 per cent over the last ten years, according to Statistics Canada.

It’s all adding up to an untenable situation for students, especially those who can’t rely on financial support from their families, said University of Guelph politics lecturer Ajay Sharma.

He said he’s had students tell him they are working 73 hours of work per week to pay for school, or taking up sex work, or are unable to afford even a macaroni dinner.

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“One student doesn’t even have a data plan on their phone,” Sharma said, as he drove to school during summer office hours with a list of eight students who wanted to speak to him. “I mean, not having a data plan on a phone today is pretty much the baseline of poverty.”

Sharma said students are trying to be responsible and plan their financial futures but changes to OSAP such as retroactively clawing back on grants wipe out all that planning.

“These are not freeloading kids, these are not entitled kids. They just want help to go to school because it’s so expensive and we’re telling them you’re nothing without a degree,” Sharma said.

A 10-per-cent cut in tuition fees can’t make up that difference, he said.

“You cut student activity fees by 10 per cent and those activity fees are the ones that go into the services that students from lower levels of income require,” Sharma said, such as food banks or mental health services.

“You can’t even succeed if you have to work multiple jobs during the school year,” he said. “This is mean-spirited because (the government is) not giving them a chance.”

A second chance at a stable career is what Stephanie Evans-Bitten is chasing but her efforts are hindered by a $600 reversal of a previous grant she received, the Conestoga College student says.

Evans-Bitten, who is training to be a heating and refrigeration technician after working contract jobs in the public sector, said she previously qualified for a loan amount of $6,000, which would cover tuition, and also got $900 of grant money to help pay for mandatory technical trade books and a basic tool kit. She also took on a part-time security position to cover the remaining costs of school, but her program is too intensive for her to take on more hours.

Her partner is able to hold down their mortgage payments for now, but after part of her grant was clawed back, Evans-Bitten said she’s fearful she won’t get enough funding for the January semester.

“They are also taking the value of our 9-year-old small car into consideration when judging whether I will get OSAP, which is ironic as I can’t sell my car to pay for tuition, as I need it to drive the 50-minute commute into a neighbouring city to attend trade school,” she said.

It takes seven years to fully qualify as a HVAC technician, Evans-Bitten said, which means the road ahead is long. She’s seen other mature students in her classes with families who may have to drop out, including one man with four children who told her his OSAP funding fell by $4,000 this year.

“He may also have to drop out because he has to make a decision: tuition or feeding his kids. Obviously the children and having a roof over their heads is going to win over schooling,” Evans-Bitten said.

“If (Premier Doug) Ford really is ‘for the people,’ why is he making it so hard to live in Ontario?” she said. “If he just kept the OSAP where it was, we perhaps wouldn’t have such a chronic skilled trades shortage here in Ontario.”
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