Dragged down by debt

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      More students are going to college, but with tuition fees doubled since 2002 and grants scrapped, it’s a tough slog.

      We could call this story "Davin Fox gets screwed". It's an appropriate title, after all. The question was asked: "Do you feel like you're getting screwed?"

      "Yup." Davin Fox laughs, arms crossed on his chest. The smile fades, and he says: "I don't think education should be this unattainable for people. If they're willing to educate our work force–and by they, I mean the country–I think it's really important to make it more accessible."

      Fox has had to drop out of school twice in two years because he couldn't afford it. He left Vancouver to pursue a science degree at Camosun College in Victoria two years ago. He took out a student loan to pay for college, as so many do, but for every subsequent semester, he used his borrowed money to pay off the previous semester's loan. The interest would build and so would the stress. It was a painful cycle that manifested in a migraine so severe that he couldn't study. He dropped school on his doctor's advice and moved back to Vancouver.

      Fox got a good bartending job and managed to pay off his debt. He then started school at Vancouver Community College, taking American sign language and deaf studies. With his job savings, he managed to pay rent and tuition. Later, he switched bartending jobs, thinking the new one would pay better, but in the end the work and the pay sucked. He had to take out another loan to continue his studies. When the money ran out, he applied for bursaries and scholarships, to no avail. Again, he couldn't make ends meet and had to drop out.

      "The current structure gives very little flexibility for students when life happens," Fox says. He says he knows other people in the same position and they all feel the same way: they're stuck, it sucks, and there's no way to fix it.

      Fox isn't whining or crying about it. He's uncannily laid-back for a 24-year-old who has been ravaged by government-issued debt. Sure, there is frustration deep beneath it all, but he carries the burden seemingly with ease. He smiles frequently. He accents his speech with mild laughter.

      Regardless, as of March 20, 2007, Fox owed Canada $17,335.30. He owed B.C. $5,920.99. Never mind the interest that builds on these loans. Never mind the credit-card debt. Never mind food and living expenses. When he started school in 2005, he had no more than $3,000 in debt. Now he owes more than $30,000, with nothing to show for it.

      "I'm not qualified any more than when I started," he says. "I have a half degree; I'm one year into a science degree. I'm four months into a sign-language-interpreter certificate." He rolls his eyes. "Even if I pick up and start off, it's years down the road, so I've basically screwed up my entire career path."

      THIS IS FAR TOO often the reality in Canada. As of 2006, 59 percent of Canadian students have a debt, either from government student loans or from elsewhere: credit cards, the bank, family, or friends. The average debt load has risen to $24,047, the highest ever. In B.C., it's even higher, hovering at about $27,000.

      According to a Millennium Scholarship Foundation report released on March 28, one-third of youth not attending a postsecondary school cited finances as the primary obstacle deterring them from an education. The study, entitled Barriers to Post-Secondary Education, also shows that a growing number of students are either dropping out of school or never attending because they can't afford it. Debt aversion–students being unwilling or afraid to take out a loan–was cited as the primary reason, with lack of funds following close behind.

      "Student financial assistance needs to be targeted towards reducing that financial debt," says Shamus Reid, the B.C. national executive representative to the Canadian Federation of Students, in a phone interview.

      The federation represents more than 500,000 students on over 80 campuses. It says it has been lobbying the government for needs-based grants rather than loans. It also organized the nationwide Day of Action in February, when students across the country rallied to support the CFS's cause of lowering tuition fees. In Vancouver, hundreds of students battled miserable weather to voice their support on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery.

      For the CFS, it's simple: the government should lower tuition fees to lower student debt. Students shouldn't have to suffer for their education.

      "Tuition fees, in particular in the province of British Columbia, are at an unaffordable rate for low- and middle-income families," Reid says, adding that there's been 80 percent support from the public for reducing tuition fees, citing a poll conducted by Ipsos Reid last fall.

      "There are many people who believe that education isn't a right, that it is a privilege, but those people are very much in the minority," Reid says. "When 80 percent of British Columbians support reducing tuition fees, then when 87 percent support a system of grants in the province”¦then that's huge support that the government needs to respond to."

      Whether or not government is listening is a different matter.

      The B.C. government has set aside $20 million toward tuition reduction for graduate students, and it capped tuition at the rate of inflation three years ago (although it also eliminated the six-year tuition freeze introduced by the NDP). It also set up the Pacific Leaders B.C. Loan Forgiveness Program to start this September, which offers B.C. student-loan debt relief in exchange for employment in the provincial public service. But Reid says the program still leaves out thousands of deserving students.

      The federal government has set up Federal Interest Relief, where it offers to pay the interest on all Canadian student loans for up to 30 months if a debtor is unable to find work or is temporarily disabled. It also set up, in a partnership with the provincial government, the British Columbia Student Assistance Program, a needs-based program designed to help financially troubled students with the costs of postsecondary education. A basic principle of the BCSAP, however, is that "the primary responsibility for the funding of post-secondary education rests with students and their immediate families." The government's message is pretty clear: Give it back!

      On top of that, the B.C. Liberals have scrapped provincial grants for the first four years of college or university–which was one of the heftiest student-aid packages in Canada in its time–leaving students with even less legislative help.

      "The problem is the government's commitment to students is an odd thing when it comes to finances," says Robert Clift, executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia.

      "Something needs to happen on the student-aid side. Independent of the debt problem, the student-aid system is a bit of a mess. There's a whole bunch of different programs mashed together," he says.

      In the coming year, CUFA/BC is hoping to invest its resources in student-aid policy. Clift says they'll put pressure on Minister of Advanced Education Murray Coell to look at it closely as a specific political issue. Part of the problem is that when cost comes up as an issue, it focuses on tuition.

      "Nobody's out there running up signs saying the housing allowance for student assistance is too low. The political pressure is on the tuition issue, which is completely understandable, but if the political pressure were placed specifically on student aid, that might make the government take notice."

      "I've got a lot of debt, but I'm comfortable with it. You got to look at the return," Mark Thomas says. If he sounds like a business major, it's because he is. He's sitting at a table in Kwantlen University College discussing how, after two years at the school, he's maxed out on student loans. He works about 20 hours a week, but when you add school plus work plus homework, he's working more than 60 hours every week.

      But for Thomas, it comes with the territory. "Short-term pain, long-term gain," he says. He underscores his speech with slow slices of his hand at the tabletop. He talks like a 23-year-old politician. He's deeply involved in student affairs at Kwantlen, serving as the college's student representative to the board of governors, though he is now speaking only for himself.

      "People should earn their education, and it's tough. This world is tough," he says. "So what do people want when they say, 'Oh, shit”¦I'm out of high school, I'm in college or university, I've got a big debt.' Well, of course you do, and soon you'll have a mortgage and other things to deal with. I mean, suck it up, man."

      It's not an orthodox view of student debt, at least when compared to the gung-ho, sign-slinging crew that was chanting its vocal cords raw on the steps of the art gallery in February. He's in that minority of students that Seamus Reid was talking about: the ones who believe education is a privilege, not a right. For Thomas, student debt is an investment in a student's future, and reducing tuition fees is the wrong way to go.

      And maybe he's not out of line. As the Canadian Statistical Assessment Service reported in 2003, college and university graduates are destined to be the highest earners in Canada, so perhaps they should pay a reasonable amount for their education. Otherwise, as the report points out, the cost of education would fall on the rest of society, including the working poor.

      Perhaps part of the reason that support for lowering tuition fees sits at 80 percent in B.C. is that it's an attractive answer. As Clift says, nobody's putting any other options forward. But how many of those people are giving the notion a serious second thought? Many of the students present at the VAG rally were truly frustrated about the current student financial situation–and here was a venue to voice that frustration–but how many knew for sure what lowering tuition fees would entail?

      Thomas was at the rally. He was standing on the opposite side of Robson Street, across from the hubbub, with a Reduce Tuition Fees sign stuffed in his backpack, hands in pockets.

      "I wasn't blown away," he says. "I felt that they [the CFS] should be talking about a different message, and that message should be about the government providing students with more tools to deal and manage with their day-to-day life, so they can go to school full-time." He adds that students shouldn't run to the government every time they have a problem.

      But there they were on February 7, hundreds of them, chanting anti-tuition-fee slogans, calling for government support and marching in the rain with signs while hip-hop music was pumped through giant speakers set at either side of the art gallery's south staircase. Some were smoking pot. Most were socializing or kicking hackeysacks or goofing off.

      "A majority of the people there were smoking; a majority of the people there were wearing nice clothes, and I just think, where do you draw the line?" Katherine Kitts asks. She was covering the rally for News1130, but up until a year ago she was like the rest of them, just another full-time student attending the British Columbia Institute of Technology. She was fortunate enough to have parents willing to pay for her education, but after a few years of school she decided to do it on her own. She took out federal and provincial loans and she now owes about $9,000. It's not much when compared to students who owe more than $25,000, but it's still a debt that could take her years to pay off.

      And there she was, at a rally for student financial support and turned off by what she was seeing.

      "What's the deal with the smoking and the clothes?" she ponders. "I'm not saying that there aren't students out there who aren't suffering–there's plenty of people out there who are trying their best–but I would expect that if you have a $50,000 student loan, you would have it because you're getting an education that will get you a job that's going to pay really well.

      "I find it a little bit hard to sympathize with," she says.

      Whether they find going to school beneficial or not, B.C. students are feeling that debt now more than ever. With a 92.5 percent increase in tuition fees since the 2001–02 school year, student debt has risen to levels that were unheard of 20 years ago. This rise in postsecondary cost, however, is tied mainly to the expansion of B.C.'s postsecondary-education system.

      The B.C. NDP government froze tuition from 1996–97 to 2001–02 to make postsecondary education more affordable. The number of university seats rose from 49,482 in 1990–91 to 71,134 in 2003–04, according to a Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives report, Financial Higher Learning: Post-Secondary Education in BC. Money had to be allocated from somewhere, and much of it was cut from B.C. per-student funding.

      While the NDP was in power, B.C. was one of the more progressive jurisdictions in Canada, offering student grants for years one through four. The government implemented these grants as an incentive for students to enroll, since postsecondary participation had always been low in the province. By the '90s, B.C. enrollment was the second highest in Canada.

      Now that's all just a memory. Government funding per student dropped, in constant 2005 dollars, from $11,837 in 1990–91 to $9,674 in 2003–04. So while education has become more available for students across the province, it comes at the expense of those who are paying for it.

      "For whatever reason, the Liberals decided to eliminate grants in years one to four. Even with massive budget surpluses, they have decided not to reinvest into students at all," says Rob Fleming, NDP advanced-education critic. "The sad part of it is participation rates, predictably for students of low- and middle-income families, is falling the fastest."

      B.C. nonrepayable student financial-assistance funding has been cut by $23 million from last year. Naturally, both Fleming and CUFA/BC want to know why. The government's excuse was that student demand is down.

      "We've never gotten a reasonable answer," Fleming says. "It's shocking when you consider some of the much more dubious areas of subsidy and investment that this government is pursuing, that they wouldn't give full consideration to the benefits to society that investing in students and tomorrow's work force has at a time when the government has the money to invest."

      "It's not that the government is ill-willed," CUFA/BC's Clift says. "The minister is a nice guy; he does care about students, but he's got so many other things pulling his attention that if something just seems to be tipping along and doing its job, he's not going to stick his nose in there. He's got too many other messes to deal with."

      One of the problems, according to Clift, is that the national student body doesn't hold a lot of clout in the system.

      "They're not throwing around big chunks of money," Clift says. "They can't go to the government and say, 'Look, if you don't decrease tuition fees today, I'm taking my head office and moving it to Alberta, and I'm taking 500 jobs with me.'"

      But despite all this, the overall proportion of youth pursuing a postsecondary education has steadily increased. Between December 1999 and December 2003, the number of Canadian youth attending college or university rose from 53 percent to 75 percent, according to Statistics Canada. The evidence shows that the decision to enroll is based less on price and more on the earnings students will receive once they graduate.

      "Postsecondary has become the new high school," says Matthew Naylor, vice-president of external affairs of UBC's Alma Mater Society. "You need it to get a job."

      Naylor is 19 years old and is speaking from his office at the AMS headquarters, located in a darkened second-floor corner of UBC's Student Union Building. Already two years into a political-science degree, he doesn't think the students are the ones getting screwed. Sure, the eradication of a B.C. grants program is "unacceptable", and many students are forced to take more than four years to graduate because of part-time work obligations and other demands, but that's life.

      "The people that are really getting screwed are the people who don't get to go to school at all, the people that can't afford to go to school, the people that aren't covered by grant programs because they've been eliminated, the people who aren't eligible for student loans," he says.

      NO MATTER HOW you view it, when tuition fees rise 100 percent and student grants are eliminated, students are getting a raw deal. So maybe "Davin Fox gets screwed" isn't an appropriate title. It's too microcosmic. The angle isn't wide enough to take in all this mess. There are too many tales out there to sum up in Fox's problems, as brutal as they are.

      Maybe this inexorable financial squeeze should just be called "Another turn of the screw".