Harvey P. Weingarten – StatsCan tuition survey: Beyond the headlines

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Statistics Canada has just released its annual Tuition and Living Accommodation Costs for Full-time Students at Canadian Degree-granting Institutions (TLAC) survey — essentially a snapshot of tuition fees and living costs for students attending Canada’s universities.   As is the case with any snapshot, it provides a broad and useful general picture of the current state of play.  As such, the data contained in the survey will undoubtedly be used to advance the arguments and positions of various groups.  However, as is also the case with any snapshot, it does not provide the full picture or context.  There are several issues worth remembering when interpreting the Statistics Canada report and the headlines and arguments that will be generated based on it.

First, the survey  presents the “sticker price” of tuition and, therefore, does not take into account the various other factors – such as scholarships, grants and other forms of financial aid (not to mention tax credits) – that mitigate the “effective tuition” that students actually pay.

An example from the University of Toronto highlights this distinction.  The sticker price undergraduate tuition for domestic arts and science students at the U of T in 2009-10 was $4,991.   However, because of the Ontario’s Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and the considerable array of scholarships, bursaries and other student aid available to U of T students, of those students receiving these forms of financial aid, only  11% paid 100% of all tuition and fees, 15% paid between 76-99% , 31% paid between 51-75%, 22% paid between 26 to 50%, 11% paid between 1-25% and 10% paid zero or less (if they received some financial support for living costs).  Virtually every Ontario university could tell a similar story.

The recent introduction of the Ontario Tuition grant that offers a $1,680 tuition rebate to eligible university students and $770 to eligible college students also mitigates the effective tuition students pay relative to the advertised sticker price tuition.  The existence of these financial aid programs may help explain why Ontario has the highest postsecondary participation rates in spite of having the highest tuition in the country.

Second, the survey lists tuition levels but not the compulsory student fees that students are also obliged to pay.  The level of these compulsory additional fees varies considerably by province and by institution and are relevant when making inter-provincial or inter-institutional comparisons.   For example, last year, compulsory fees for undergraduate students ranged from $218 in Newfoundland and Labrador to $911 in Alberta.

Finally, although we know that this comparison annoys some, the cost of a Canadian university undergraduate education remains relatively low compared to American students studying in-state in their public universities.  For example, students at the University of Massachusetts pay $10-12,000, at the University of California between $12-13,000 and at Indiana University, $10,034.

The tuition survey is an important index of the health, wealth and vitality of Canada’s postsecondary systems and where they are going.  It provides important information for students and their families.  It receives, as it should, considerable media attention.  But, it is equally important that any interpretation of the tuition survey goes beyond the few simple tables provided and the headlines. If nothing else, it is important that discussion of tuition, because it represents a significant and increasing component of institutional revenues, should be linked to analysis of how these funds are used and the quality of the educational experiences institutions can or do provide.

Thanks for reading.

-Harvey P. Weingarten

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