Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The myth of affordable Canadian tuition

By now, we're all aware that Canadian university students are paying a lot more in tuition than their parents or even their older siblings once did. Nationwide, costs have risen by 118.2% in real dollars since 1990-91, a recent Statistics Canada study on enrollment in professional programs indicated that fewer and fewer middle-class Canadians are enrolling, as they are no longer able to afford to pay costs associated with attending these programs, and more and more universities are even finding it necessary to establish food banks for students who are cutting corners to pay for tuition. Sobering statistics, especially when compared with various European countries' ultra-low fees. But at least we're still better off up here than the Americans are, right?

Except that as it turns out, that oft-repeated truism isn't actually, you know, true.

Carol is a student at a large Midwestern U.S. university[*]. Hers is a "state university" [**], i.e., a public institution funded by her state's government [***]. The tuition cost there is figured at around USD$6,000 per semester, which sounds staggeringly high to a Canadian. However, that amount covers not only fees for classes, but also fees for student health care, registration, room, board, and books. Additionally, the quoted $6,000 is much higher than what Carol--and the vast majority of her fellow students--actually pays. In the U.S., most public universities such as Carol's have pledged to meet 100% of the financial need demonstrated by each incoming student, in the form of a financial aid package that comes to them as a combination of grants and loans.

Every February, all U.S. students who want to be considered for federal aid fill out a form called the Federal Application for Free Student Aid (FAFSA). This form takes into account two factors: any income the students earn (90% of which they are expected to contribute toward their education and education-related expenses, such as room and board) and the income of anyone claiming them as a dependent (10% of which is also expected to go into the same pot). So based on Carol's parents' lower-middle class income and Carol's own earnings from a part-time student job, the U.S. government gives her, per-semester, a grant amounting to USD$2025, various other small grants amounting to USD$1100 in total, and federal loans (which she must pay back) totalling around USD$3500. This means that her actual per-semester out-of-pocket cost--for tuition, fees, room, board, and books--is more or less zero. And none of those grants are performance-based--for those students with truly stellar grades or even certain extracurricular involvements, those numbers can go up substantially.

Contrast that with Helen, a student at a large university in western Canada, where tuition costs around CAN$2000 per semester. On the surface of things, that sounds like one heck of a lot less than Carol pays, but keep in mind that that amount only covers actual fees for courses, not room, board, or books. Like Carol, Helen also fills out a yearly form determining her financial aid, which is then calculated based on an expected parental contribution of 10% of their income, how long she'd been off from school over the summer, and how much money she'd made during that time. As in Carol's situation, the Canadian financial aid system Helen is subject to is set up so that any difference is made up between the amount her parents are deemed responsible for and the actual cost. However, in contrast to Carol's situation, that difference isn't given to Helen as a combination of grants and loans, but exclusively as loans that Helen will have to pay back.

Now, if you remember, Carol also ends up with loans amounting to about USD$3500 per semester, which runs a little higher than Helen's Canadian per-semester debt. However, Helen is expected to pay for room and board and books by working over the summer, or by asking for money from her parents, or perhaps by winning the lottery. The Canadian Student Loan program does offer students like Helen a certain amount for room and board if they can't come up with it any other way, but that is always over and above the amount already given to her for tuition. Which means that if Helen actually wants to eat and pay the rent, the per-semester amount of debt she accrues by attending her Canadian university ends up being more than the per-semester amount of debt Carol accrues by attending her American university.

With respect to graduate education, the differences can be even greater. One factor that many Canadian graduate students don't take into account when pronouncing Canadian universities more reasonably priced than their American counterparts is the fact that many U.S. universities have tuition waivers (hard-won by graduate student employee unions) for any graduate students who work part-time for the university as teaching or research assistants. These are neither need-based nor merit-based, but simply a benefit that goes along with being a graduate student employee. And it comes on top of a meagre salary, from which graduate students can then pay room, board, books, and other life costs, leaving them with no (or at least minimal) loans. For example, I was a graduate student at a state university in the U.S. for six years, during which I taught one section of a class per semester. I never paid a cent in tuition, not the entire time--and neither did any of my out-of-state or international student colleagues. By contrast, my graduate students at the Canadian university where I now work do get paid for serving as teaching assistants, but what they receive doesn't even cover their tuition, much less their room and board. They have to take out loans to cover that.

Now, I am by no means praising the U.S.'s commitment to higher education, here--compared with the low costs of European universities, an American education is indeed appallingly expensive. But the next time you hear Canadians reassuring themselves that while a Canadian education is costly, at least it's cheaper than in the U.S., you might want to draw their attention to the fact that those statements don't actually hold up under scrutiny. And if Canadians really want to be able to claim that our students are better off than American students, then we'd better do something serious about escalating tuition costs, and we'd better do it now. We can do that by offering more generous financial aid packages to students who need them, we can do that by lowering tuition costs, or we can do some combination of the two, but continuing to do nothing at all isn't tenable.

[*] Carol and Helen are both real people who volunteered to have their information used as illustrative examples here, but their names have been changed and other identifying details removed to protect their identities.

[**] Many Canadians don't realize that the U.S. has two types of universities: public and private. Public universities, which form the bulk of U.S. institutions of higher education and are usually called "state universities" because they are funded to a large extent by the individual states, are analogous to Canadian universities. Because university funding comes from state governments rather than the federal government, there are two sets of tuition fees: one for "in-state" students, and one for "out-of-state" students. The cost for out-of-state students is dramatically higher, and since Canadians looking to go to university in the U.S. look at the cost for out-of-state students (natch), they are often under the impression that it costs this much for everyone. That's not the case--most students at state universities are paying in-state rates.

[***] In fact, state universities like Carol's are funded at an average of CAN$5000 more (pdf) per student per year than Canadian universities receive from Canadian provincial governments.


JG said...

I'm in my first year of a graduate program at Acadia University in Nova Scotia. I'm instructing two labs and tutoring, and my funding more than covers my tuition, and will leave me several thousand dollars ahead when this year is over. I don't know how exceptional this is - I don't have an NSERC award like a CGS (yet...) - but all the other grad students in my department are also not paying anything in tuition after their funding is taken into account.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I'm glad to hear you've got enough to cover your tuition. Is it also enough to cover your rent and your food expenses (i.e., can you get by without loans)?

JG said...

I actually live at home at the moment, but, yes, funding would more than cover rent and food otherwise.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...

Good to know Nova Scotia takes care of its own!

JG said...

Graduate students at least. We have the highest undergraduate tuition in the country, and Acadia is the highest.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I'm also thinking that these differences are probably discipline-specific as well as university-specific. You mentioned NSERC, and I'm betting that the natural sciences graduate students are better funded than the social sciences graduate students at my university as well.

Anonymous said...

Another counter-example (and worth no more than anecdotal examples usually are):

I'm a doctoral student in the social sciences at the University of Toronto. My current funding (a combination of TA, RA, and scholarship/fellowship money) is sufficient to cover my tuition and provide me with a reasonable standard of living, even with Toronto rent. The same was true of the funding I received for my MA at the University of Waterloo. McMaster and Queen's also promised me sufficient funding to cover tuition and cost-of-living when I applied to their programs.

Of the Canadian schools to which the people in my Master's cohort applied, the only one I know of that didn't guarantee full funding was the University of Alberta.

Of course, this doesn't mean the system couldn't stand improvements. My current program requires that students without external funding work 10 hours/week as a TA and another 8-25 hours/week as an RA (depending on the salary they manage to negotiate), all before they get to start on their own work. (Not so bad if it's only 18 hours, but a bit tough if they're working 35.)


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


That surprises me about the U of T, given how expensive (and prestigious) it is. Good to hear. On the other hand, I really do think things would be better for Canadian graduate students in the long run if they had tuition waivers. It's really an ideal benefit because it doesn't cost the university anything in real funds, and yet it's so very helpful to the students. With a tuition waiver, the money you earn is really yours, rather than just getting turned back over to the university in the form of tuition and fees.

I did a little googling, and it looks like at least some Canadian universities are realizing this:

The University of British Columbia approved in January 2003 a tuition waiver for full-time PhD students, available this fall, and the University of Toronto has offered waivers and $12,000 in guaranteed funding to PhD students conducting research since 2001. "We know funding is an issue for students at this level of their studies and this is an incentive to attract and retain the world's best PhD candidates to campus," said UBC Vice-President Academic Barry McBride in March. "This is a very competitive environment, and most American universities offer tuition waivers to PhD candidates, and other Canadian universities are moving in this direction too." (emphasis mine)

Anonymous said...

IP, some of your graduate students (moi) have also had to exhaust their RRSPs using the federal government's Lifelong Learning Plan (LLP) to go back to school. I pay approximately $3 000 CDN per semester for tution (not including books/course packs). Each month I make in the neighbourhood of $1 500 as a TA/RA. This translates to $750/mo. paid for tuition and $750/mo. earned towards living expenses. I pay $430 for rent, $388 on my student loan (yes, from my undergrad degree!), plus other expenses (ie. food, electricity). All in all, two years of grad school will cost me $15 000.

But do you think the banks want to help me? Absolutely not.

Because I am obligated to pay my student loan monthly (I was silly enough to roll my student loan into a normal CIBC loan and am now locked into it), the chances of going on to do doctoral work is nearly impossible. Why? Because I desparately requested the CIBC to roll the remainder of my $19 000 student loan (hey, it used to be $34 000) into a student line of credit (SLOC). The advantage of a SLOC is *better* interest and lower payments. And what did my bank say? "Sorry, AP, though your credit is excellent, you don't make enough money to qualify for a student line of credit".

Does this make sense to you? I don't make enough money to apply for student funding. What the?

My postsecondary institution does not support me as much as it should and my financial institution doesn't support me at all because I don't make enough money!?

Hell, perhaps I should go to the States!

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I was hoping you would read this post!

Before you decide to go to the States for your Ph.D., though, you might want to have a look at the article I quoted to "Jen" above. It sounds like some Canadian universities may be following suit on the tuition waiver concept, at least for Ph.D. students. If you remain on the lookout for Canadian universities that offer the same deal as mainstream American universities, then you may well be able to both stay in Canada and get your tuition waived. But certainly, I wouldn't rule out the U.S. on the grounds that it's more expensive, since in practice it often isn't.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree that tuition waivers would be an improvement to the current system. That is, as long as they don't decide to hand us tuition waivers and then cut back our fellowships by an equivalent amount, something I suspect U of T is entirely capable of doing.

Actually, even if they did cut back our fellowships, tuition waivers would still be an improvement. Currently, we only receive fellowship for the first four years of our Ph.D. program (assuming we come in with a Master's degree), but few people finish in that time and most continue to work as TAs and RAs past that point. Tuition waivers would be an immense benefit to them.


Anonymous said...

One more thing.

The article you mentioned isn't quite accurate. U of T doesn't currently offer tuition waivers per se. Instead, it guarantees that students in the first four (or sometimes five) years of their Ph.D. will receive at least $12 000 + tuition in funding. (In some departments, the guaranteed amount is a little higher than that, and in some you can make more than that through extra TA and RA hours, though it's not guaranteed.) We have the option of either paying our tuition up front in September, or having it taken out of our fellowship cheques in January and May. But again, once students are past those initial four (or five) years, they're expected to pay tuition regardless of whether they are working for the university in some capacity (and regardless of whether they're using any university resources). So the American system remains superior.


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


Yeah, guaranteed funding is quite different from a tuition waiver. It's a good thing with similar results, but it's much easier to reduce something like that than it is to take away a tuition waiver. And if they're calling it a tuition waiver when it really isn't, that's quite annoying.

Anonymous said...

Someone starting graduate school as a foreign student, budgeting on having the tuition waiver that comes with an RA appointment, should probably think about what personal resources would be available to cover expenses in the event the RA funding runs out or the advisor-advisee/employer-employee relationship turns bad.

Ten years ago I paid >$4000 US a quarter) in tuition after I'd stopped working as an RA. If I'd kept working for my advisor on projects other than my dissertation work, I don't think I would have been able to finish.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


That's a very good point. In my field it was clear that every single one of us was going to work as a TA every semester until we were done; that's just how it was set up. But in a lot of fields it's more competitive to get those few teaching or research assistantships there are, and if you don't end up keeping one for the whole time, a graduate education can get very expensive in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

IP, and one more rant to add to my previous financial comments. On top of paying tuition and tapping into retirement funds, paying rent, bills, phone, etc. I still, after all this, have to pay Alberta Health Care premiums. No wonder I only have 2 pairs of jeans.

Anonymous said...

Of course, in Canada only Quebec has different rates for different provinces. (PQ Assholes) If UofT did this, it could have no tuition for all it's Ontario students.

In province tuition in Quebec is what, $1000? For ANY income.

Can you say that about 25% of the US?

Anonymous said...


Something I didn't see mentioned was student loan intrest relief. Both my wife and I got a BSc in Alberta, she got about $6k(because I was working full time by then) and I got about $10k. As far as I know we were in no special situation except that we were in a private school. (I did spend some time at UofA and UofC though.) The intrest relief programs apply to everyone.

She also has thanked the stars that she came to Canada. She believes, rightly or wrongly, that she would have never gone to school in the US due to the expense. She was offered scholarships to two Universities when she graduated high school and *still* couldn't afford it.

I don't like the way things are going in Canada, but I suspect that things are not quite so rosey in the states.


Idealistic Pragmatist said...


First off, I never said that things were "rosy" in the U.S. In fact, I said the opposite--that an education costs far too much there as well. The point of this post was to argue that things aren't actually any better here, and in many respects they may be worse. You're correct to suggest that Canada offers better student loan relief than the U.S. does. On the other hand, I have to wonder whether it's more beneficial to offer student loan relief, or not to charge so much in the first place that students need to take out such big loans. (Me, I'd rather owe money once I'm done and have a job than when I'm having trouble making ends meet as a poor student.)

I don't know why your wife wasn't able to afford tuition in the U.S., because I don't know enough about her particular situation. The part of the U.S. equation that most frequently goes wrong is when the parents don't contribute the full amount that they're "supposed" to, so it may have been that. But most state universities in the U.S. do calculate financial aid packages that are sufficient for most students to afford to attend, and that's better than what we're offering in Canada.

Anonymous said...

If all we're doing is comparing anecdotes, a friend of mine told me that just last weekend he and his mother sat down to compare finances and found out that his total real-world cost to graduate McGill will be almost identical to what hers was, a generation ago.

In your example, I'd definitely like to know which universities these were - costs vary widely depending on the prestige of the school. Were these schools remotely equivalent? I payed $4000 a semester to go to Waterloo, which is one of the more expensive courses in Canada; the comparable rate for MIT, which is in the same league, is not $6000 but $16,000! At the high end, the costs are definitely not comparable.

Idealistic Pragmatist said...


I won't tell you the names of the universities because I promised to protect the identities of the two people who provided their financial details to make these examples. But I will tell you that I did backflips to try and make the two situations as comparable as possible. The two universities are very similar in scope, size, and status, as well as being located in similar parts of their respective countries.

Also, my co-author teaches at the University of Waterloo, and I spend a month there every year. It is a fine institution, but the idea that it's even remotely equivalent to MIT shows how little you know about MIT--or American universities in general.

I'm quite chagrined to see the defensiveness coming from Canadians about this post. Anybody who reads my blog knows that I hardly pull my punches in criticising the U.S.--so why would I do that in criticising Canada? If Canadians are so blind to their own system's failings that they can't conceive of the notion that they're actually worse than the U.S. in something, then there's very little hope of ever making it any better.