I remember walking across campus one day during my first year of university when a display caught my eye. To protest rising tuition fees, the Canadian Federation of Students had invited students to post the amount of debt they expected to be in when they graduated. The numbers were staggering: $16,000; $22,000; $29,000; $40,000. I was shocked not only by the sum of the numbers, but also of how common it was for students to face such debt.
It hasn’t always been this way. In the past 15 years, federal spending cuts have caused tuition fees to rise four times faster than the rate of inflation. According to a 2004 Statistics Canada report, graduates' debt loads grew 76 per cent in the decade ending in 2000.
This past January, Canada Student Loan debt in Canada passed the $13 billion mark, and continues to climb. And this number does not even include provincial or private debt, meaning that actual debt is much higher.
Student debt rates are highest in the Maritimes, where the average student has over $28,000 in loans. By comparison, Quebec has the lowest rates of student debt in the country, at an average of $13,000. This is in large part due to the fact that the provincial government subsidizes post-secondary education to a much greater extent than other provinces in Canada.
The high cost of education is a significant barrier for many who seek post-secondary education, particularly for people with low incomes and those with children. More students are taking on jobs while going to school in order to make ends meet, and often still face enormous debt loads when they graduate.
High levels of debt often take years to pay back and therefore can affect students long after they graduate. It can impact their future career and educational choices and even when they begin families.
The high cost of education also creates a divide between those who can afford post-secondary education, those who must take on high debt loads to attend, and those who cannot afford to attend at all. This divide, in turn, contributes to systemic problems such as growing income inequality.
Policies such as greater subsidization of higher education and greater student loan relief would help minimize the burden of debt that so many students carry, and in doing so, promote more equal access to education.
Mariel Angus is former CPJ’s policy intern.
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