Hot! University in Ontario is cheaper than you think

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – While tuition fees have been rising in Ontario, tax credits, grants and bursaries offer enormous offsets to students.
May 22 2014.   By: George Fallis

We hear a lot about high tuition fees and how they have been rising. In Ontario today, the average tuition and compulsory fees for an arts degree are $6,657 and these fees have almost tripled over the past 20 years.

The standard view is that university is becoming less affordable and that these high fees risk becoming an insurmountable barrier for students from low-income families.

In fact, the opposite is true. Over the last 20 years, university has become more affordable for all students. Meanwhile, tuition for low-income students has dropped to especially low, even negative, levels.

The confusion over whether school is becoming less or more affordable stems from a misunderstanding of how to measure the cost. In particular, some fail to consider that the real cost of university is tuition minus grants — net tuition.

Over the last 20 years, the array and value of grants available to Ontario students has ballooned, both in terms of across-the-board and need-based assistance. Yet we tend not to recognize these offsets because they come in many forms, are complicated and are less visible than tuition fees.

Tax credits available under the personal income tax system, for instance, offer enormous offsets to students. Tuition, compulsory incidental fees and some living expenses are included in the calculation. The credits have a cash-equivalent value in reduced income taxes, which has more than tripled over the last 20 years. Surprisingly, not all students take up this assistance. For those who do, the value each year is roughly $2,234.

Another important offset is the Ontario Tuition Grant — the 30 per cent tuition rebate implemented by the provincial Liberal government in 2012. This is available to all students whose family income is less than $160,000 per year. The value of the grant today is $1,730 per year.

The third major across-the-board offset is the Canada Education Savings Grant, begun in 1998 and improved since then. Today, the annual grant is 20 per cent of the first $2,500 contributed to a Registered Education Savings Plan (RESP), with a lifetime maximum grant of $7,200. In 2013-14, the average grant provided around $750.

So while average tuition at Ontario universities is $6,657, when you account for these three programs alone, net tuition is $1,943. The average student pays only 30 per cent of the sticker price.

Over the last 20 years, offsets have risen almost as fast as tuition. And when you account for inflation, real net tuition is actually lower today. Meanwhile, real family incomes have increased by 27 per cent over the period.

And for students from low-income families, the current state of affairs is even better.

These students have access to all the across-the-board assistance (although building up an RESP will be more difficult), as well as two significant sources of need-based assistance.

The federally funded Canada Student Grant, which is delivered through theOntario Student Assistance Program (OSAP), provided grants of $1,919 last year to students from low-income families.

There are also need-based grants available from each university.

University bursaries have risen dramatically over the last 20 years — far faster than tuition — in part because, as tuition fees increased, universities in Ontario were required to set aside a portion of the increased revenue for such assistance.

Ontario also requires that universities provide enough financial aid to cover a student’s assessed needs for expenses directly related to his or her program, including books, tuition and mandatory fees not fully met by OSAP.

A reasonable estimate of the average university-specific grant to a low-income student is $1,900.

As you can see, the offsets for students from families in the lowest income quintile are greater than tuition fees. For these students, net tuition is negative.

Today, university is more affordable than most realize. Surely this helps to explain why, as tuition tripled over the last two decades, participation rates still increased, even among students from low-income families.

That said, real obstacles to accessing these grants remain. The system is a complex hodgepodge and many students do not use the assistance available to them. Certainly the grants could be delivered in a simpler and more effective manner.

But even amid the complexity, there are three simple rules for students thinking about how to finance university.

First, start saving early by establishing an RESP (this will ensure that you get the maximum Canada Education Savings Grant). Second, while at university, be sure to file your income tax even if you have no earned income (this will ensure that you get the income tax credits). And third, be sure to apply for the Ontario Tuition Grant, for OSAP and for the need-based assistance at your own university.

For students who follow these steps, university in Ontario is now more affordable than it was two decades ago.

George Fallis is a Professor of Economics and Social Science at York University and author of Rethinking Higher Education: Participation, Research, and Differentiation.

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