Rising tuition leads to a two-tiered system

Admit it. If you aren’t in college or university right now or if you graduated a long time ago—like in the early 1980s—you think today’s postsecondary students are kind of whiney butts, don’t you? Mooching off their moms and dads, or signing on the
dotted line for a student loan they practically plan to default on, they tilt back their lattes and mewl: “It’s so hard; I can hardly afford tuition, let alone fees and books.” Then, zoom, off they go in their Acuras.


You, on the other hand, you who went to school 30 years ago and paid your own way, you who worked at Woodward’s or planted trees or worked at Dome Petroleum every summer to pay your way through postsecondary schooling and drove the rustiest shitbox money could buy, think: “Suck it up, baby; that’s how it is. Work hard. Drink lots. Study a bit. And graduate after about eight years.” Not because you’ve had to, mind you, but because you want to.

But guess what? You had it good. Let’s just look at the two major
variables that affect postsecondary students: tuition and wages.

If you are a middle-aged adult who started at SFU circa 1978, you paid $18 per credit hour and you made $3 per hour at your minimum-wage job. You had to work about 90 hours to pay full-time tuition for one semester.

In contrast, let’s take Joe Student going to postsecondary today. If he attends SFU in 2008, he pays $151.10 per credit hour and, with his awesome $8-per-hour minimum-wage job, he has to work 283 hours just to pay for a semester’s tuition. Sorry, Mom, that’s more than three times as many hours as you had to work in 1978. To work the same number of hours you did to pay tuition, Joe Student would have to make $25 per hour.

What a surprise, then, that student-loan debt in Canada has tripled in the past 15 years. The average student-loan debt for an undergraduate degree is now $27,000, a prequel to a lifetime of debt. Nationally, 40 percent of all full-time students rely on student loans.

And if you think it’s hyperbole to suggest that such high tuition and high debt will eventually skew students’ career choices, look no further than the U.S., where the public sector has had to “incentivize” recruitment in some areas through student-loan-forgiveness programs. Turns out postsecondary education is not a personal luxury after all. In fact, that nurse attending your father or that teacher teaching your kids is your luxury. It’s just that someone else paid for it.

If we want to foment social unrest (think Paris suburbs), it’s easy. Just create an underclass by limiting access to higher education. According to the Canadian Federation of Students, there are twice as many postsecondary students from this country’s highest-income group as from its lowest-income group, and most Canadians who delay or don’t get postsecondary education say their decision was made for financial reasons. In contrast, after undergraduate tuition was eliminated in Ireland in 1995, participation in higher education among those in the lowest socioeconomic bracket there increased from 23 percent to 47 percent between 1998 and 2003; overall postsecondary enrollment in Ireland rose by 15 percent between 1995 and 1999.

We pride ourselves on our highly trained work force and great social mobility in this country, but—especially in B.C., where tuition is higher than the national average—there has emerged what is essentially a two-tiered postsecondary education system: one tier for people who can afford it and the other one for students who have to mortgage their future in order to have one.