Martin Hicks and Fiona Deller – Free Tuition: Neither a pig nor in a poke

Free tuition is not a political slogan.  It is an important new program that will increase access to higher education for low-income and marginalized Ontarians.  Now that we are finally ready to deploy it, let’s please not immediately politicize it away.

A long time ago, back before 1991, Ontario’s student assistance program, OSAP, was pretty simple.  Your tuition and living needs were added up.  You got an up-front grant, and if your needs went past a certain limit (the “grant ceiling”) you got a loan on top of that, which you had to pay off.

Then everything got complicated and obscure.  The Ontario government switched to a new OSAP that was all loan up front, but when you finished your studies you got some of it forgiven (like a sinner finally reformed).  There were credible reasons to do this at the time.  It made the program less regressive as the forgiveness-grant was focussed on those with the highest financial need; it helped the province scoop up more available Canada Student Loans dollars for the benefit of Ontario students; and, under the accounting rules of the day, it deferred a whack of booked expenses for the government in the midst of an agonizing budgetary deficit.

But, and this is big: few people understand the loan forgiveness scheme.  Many low-income Ontarians see only a tuition bill and a big fat loan.  This is bad for access in part because it makes a lousy headline.

On top of all this sit, like two warts, provincial and federal tuition tax credits that are so far removed from the actual payment of tuition owing that their positive impact in reducing costs is all but lost to the intended beneficiaries.  Don’t blame would be students for failure to understand.  Even the experts are befuddled by this layered obfuscation.  StatsCan’s yearly province-by-province tuition round up simplistically reports the average sticker price for tuition, which for Ontario looks like the highest in the country.

The victims of all this confusion are of course low-income and marginalized students.  Although they already effectively receive free tuition or very low tuition in Ontario, they cannot see it, they do not believe it and they cannot imagine themselves holding a college diploma or university degree.  A completely unnecessary financial barrier had been created despite a host of substantive improvements to OSAP over the years.

Then came a miraculous alignment of the stars.  Gone was the provincial obsession with tax credits, the deferment advantage of loan repayment and a passion for costly, albeit invisible OSAP improvements.  Marginalized youth emerged as a priority for the government.

Some very hard working, diligent bureaucrats with nothing personal to gain grasped the opportunity to work with receptive political masters of the moment to redesign the whole program, including the provincial tax credit, so that there really is up-front free tuition in Ontario for low-income, marginalized Ontarians.   There is no sleight of hand here.  There is no confusion or obfuscation.

So, why are people objecting? Ah yes, the caveats. It’s not really free because students are still expected to contribute to their living expenses. It’s not true because middle and upper middle-income students still have to pay tuition… Fact is, living expenses aren’t tuition and the government never claimed to be paying living expenses. Just tuition. Fact is, the program is for the lowest income students. And their tuition is free.

“Free tuition” for low-income Ontarians has precisely the same meaning as “free tuition” in the various tuition-free European countries.  Not free living expenses, not free love, but free tuition. Low-income students will get a bill from their college or university where the amount owing for tuition is $0.00.

And for those muttering that this must be a trick because the government added no new money: what was done here is surely precisely what we want more of from government – to make existing public money work harder and do a better job of meeting program and equity objectives in a transparent manner.

Free tuition for low-income students means exactly that.  It removes a huge psychological barrier.  It focusses more of the existing money on those who need it most. It frees the minds and energies of those who worry and care about access to now address other barriers, and there are many more besides money.

For the sake of access, can we please keep politics away from this?  In the province of Ontario, tuition is free for low-income students.  It’s just a fact.

Martin Hicks is HEQCO’s executive director of data and statistics; Fiona Deller is HEQCO’s executive director of policy and partnerships.

2 responses to “Martin Hicks and Fiona Deller – Free Tuition: Neither a pig nor in a poke”

  1. Martin and Fiona – thanks for writing this cogent and concise assessment of the ‘free tuition’ developments in Ontario. Free tuition is an interesting policy decision that should open access to higher education for a segment of the population for whom it was seen as too costly. And that is brilliant, if the pursuit of a post-secondary credential is the end goal. I suggest that it’s not.

    If we accept that the great majority of students pursue higher education as part of a process that takes them into the workplace then we must accept that the a diploma is a way station, not a destination. In other jurisdictions which have accepted that enrollment is driven by an employment imperative resources have been made available to help students reach first destination employment. I am hopeful that Ontario recognizes the essential truth of this, and will add supports that help the student get to where they really want to go. Investments in career preparation are needed. To do otherwise is to offer free transportation to a place that is the penultimate stop on their journey – getting them Guildwood when they want to reach Union.

  2. Zachary Rose says:

    I somehow missed this last week. Excellent blog, I’m in full agreement.

    It’s also worth noting that , not only is it sound policy, but it’s what had been recommended by stakeholders and those using financial aid. This is exactly the kind of receptiveness we want to encourage.

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