The rising cost of living is hitting many students hard. Is the student financial aid program still sufficient and adequate? Third text in a series on the financial precariousness of students in times of inflation.
“We should not limit ourselves to saying that we have the best loan and scholarship programs in America. We must realize that these programs must be adapted to the current situation, because our student population is particularly vulnerable,” says Bernard Tremblay, president and director of the Fédération des cégeps.
Witness to the growing difficulties of students, Mr. Tremblay believes that financial aid for studies “is not enough”.
To determine the level of financial aid to which a college or university student is entitled, the government takes into account the school fees and living expenses that the student must assume, then subtracts a portion of his or her income from this amount.
According to Quebec estimates, these living expenses amount to $1,283 per month for students who do not live at home and $601 for those who live there.
But, according to the Advisory Committee for Financial Accessibility to Studies in a report published earlier this year, these amounts should be increased.
If we consider tuition fees, expenses for housing, groceries, transportation, clothing and even telephone calls, we see that the average amount that a university student who does not live at home must pay parents would amount to approximately $2,296 per month, the committee calculates, based on a study by the Quebec University Student Federation indexed to the current cost of living.
This committee, which brings together representatives of universities and CEGEPs, says it is “concerned by the gap between the economic situation of those studying and the assistance granted by the program.”
This does not mean, however, that the gap between these two amounts should be entirely “filled”, but it should be “reduced”, believes the president of the committee, Éric Tessier.
University and college student associations also advocate catching up on eligible expenses. They also ask that the parents’ salary be taken into account less in the evaluation of applications.
“Several students find themselves in situations where parents do not really contribute financially to their studies and they cannot seek financial assistance for their studies,” reports Laurence Mallette-Léonard, president of the Quebec College Student Federation. Their only recourse is to sue their parents to get this financial assistance. And it’s very rare that they do. »
Cybill Bou-Nassif is a human sciences student at Ahuntsic College. She only obtained $2,000 in loans last year, since the government calculates that her father, with whom she lives, can pay for her studies. But the reality is quite different.
“I have been financially independent since I was 15. My father has two children in his care, he was a single parent, he doesn’t have a big income. So, I quickly started working and paying for all my things myself, including school fees, my phone, my clothes, my gas and some of the groceries,” she says.
I have been financially independent since I was 15 years old. My father has two children in his care, he was a single parent, he doesn’t have a big income. So I quickly started working and paying for all my things myself.
She also recently experienced the loss of a loved one, which affected her mental and financial health. “Certain personal situations, such as depression, can affect a student’s ability to work and study. This should be taken into consideration when calculating financial aid,” believes the woman who is also involved in her local student association.
Cybill is currently experiencing significant financial stress. She had to come to an agreement with the college to delay payment of her tuition fees.
Unequal in the face of financial insecurity
The director of the Observatory on Success in Higher Education (ORES), Julie Gagné, suggests that the loan and scholarship program take more into account the diversity of profiles and situations experienced by students.
“Not everyone is equal when it comes to the challenges of financial insecurity,” says M.me Won.
However, even if, according to her, “the typical student no longer exists”, the program still seems tailor-made for the young student who goes from secondary school directly to full-time higher education.
“Populations who have more atypical paths will be at a disadvantage. One of these populations is that of student parents,” reports the researcher.
Among the solutions, ORES proposes extending the duration of eligibility for the program. For example, “a person who wishes to be eligible for scholarships during their pre-university college studies must have completed their program in two years, according to the “expected duration”,” indicates the report entitled Financial accessibility to studies. What are the conditions for student success?.
“However, only 38% of the student population obtains their pre-university college diploma in two years. This rate increases to 64% in three years and to 71% in four years,” the report also mentions, citing 2019 data from the Institute of Statistics of Quebec.
Mme Gagné also suggests making the program more flexible so that part-time students can obtain scholarships.
Leave studies to pay your bills
Furthermore, the financial barriers to studies are not the same from one region to another, points out Mr. Tremblay, of the Fédération des cégeps. However, the amount of estimated living expenses is the same for everyone.
In Montreal, housing costs more than in Quebec or Sherbrooke. And in Gaspé, for example, there is a shortage which forces students to find accommodation on the outskirts.
“As soon as you move away, you need a car. So here we are in another level of costs. We have seen students say that they would have liked to study in a CEGEP, but who ultimately decided to do something else, due to lack of accommodation nearby,” laments Mr. Tremblay.
In a context where the cost of housing and food has skyrocketed since the pandemic, the path of studies and debt may become less attractive for young people, he fears.
“There are programs that are having difficulty because young people say that it might be more advantageous to work right away rather than study,” says Mr. Tremblay.
By email, the office of the Minister of Higher Education, Pascale Déry, recognizes that “financial insecurity can be an obstacle to perseverance and success in higher education” and assures that the government “will continue the work to better support students.” As measures that have already been taken, his office highlights in particular “a significant increase in financial assistance for studies of around $146 million per year” as well as the “raising of the parental contribution threshold” to broaden access in the program.