October 30, 2012

Every now and then the student loan issue pops up out of a deep silence, wags its tail, angers anyone who should dare criticize the government’s student loan program and then vanishes out of sight until the next time.

The topic of student loans is like religion or politics. You have believers and non-believers. Some believe that post secondary education should be free. Some believe that government can’t afford such a luxury. All it can do is lend money – to help the poor whose families can’t front the bill for college or university – and the poor should be grateful for the loans.

The government’s position is exceedingly clear on post secondary education. Governments are proud of the student loan program. According to their vision, post secondary education is an investment that improves employment opportunities and earnings. The student loan program is an investment in the future, not really a debt.

This is where you run into the non-believers. Most of us who live outside of the walls of Jericho or Ottawa, whichever the case may be, know that people, especially young people have little choice. They actually cannot get a job without meeting the demands from employers from all walks of professional life for degrees, diplomas, designations or some approved qualification. People need to be certified in some way by the local institute, college or university.

I could tell you many stories about how people have wound up with a $10,000 student loan debt after attending a four or six month course and then be unable to find employment or, in even more cases, they find employment but their wages are below the poverty line.

College and university programs cost even more – in both tuition fees and in time spent outside of the labour market studying. The recent student protests in Quebec show how angry many young people are about how expensive it is to attend - and then have to pay the student loan debt. The tuition fee story is just part of the expense. Statistics Canada recently reported that the average annual tuition expense is $5,366 and it goes up each and every year:

Undergraduate tuition fees for full time Canadian students
School Year 2007/2008 2008/2009 2009/2010 2010/2011 2011/2012
Average $ (Canada) 4,558 4,747 4,942 5,146 5,366

The cost for rent, food, utilities i.e. the basic essentials of life are added on top of the tuition. Far too many students resort to using credit cards and other lines of credit in addition to their student loan allotments.

The believers will tell you about how well and good the post secondary world is and how it works for most graduates.

Unfortunately, the devil is in the details for the non-believers. The simple truth is this. The student loan program lends massive amounts of money to people who cannot afford to attend post secondary educational institutions any other way. Is this the most logical and progressive way to help impoverished individuals and families get a job – lend them money?

The believers will immediately scoff at suggestions of change and call you a dreamer. However, the students in Quebec are not dreaming. They are worried precisely about the future. Let’s start listening to our young people because they are the future.