The issue of student financial assistance—or rather, the hurricane of issues—touches almost every part of the student experience. Decisions about which institution to attend, where to live, what groceries to buy, or whether or not to take a part-time job while studying are all influenced by students’ ability to pay for university and, by extension, their ability to access financial assistance.
When we talk about financial assistance, we need to remind ourselves that we’re not just talking about the hotly debated OSAP (although most people either have their own OSAP horror story, or know someone who does). We’re also talking about bank loans and credit cards, trust funds, Gerber funds, and fifteen years of savings stored under mattresses. Most students—whether it’s from family, the government, or the bank—have to use borrowed money to attend university.
When we’re talking about the costs of education, again we must remind ourselves we’re not just talking about tuition and fees. Students have to scrounge up funds for thousands of dollars in textbooks, rent, food, and transportation—what’s the cost of being a human being?
This is all to say, the phrase “student financial assistance” encapsulates many different funding mechanisms for many different purposes and the systems must serve many different students.
For the most part, these interlocking assistance mechanisms work well together, but some students still fall through the cracks. In the OUSA home office, we sometimes joke about these interlocking aid systems as a grand Rube Goldberg machine intended to fill a glass of water. After taking the time to painstakingly put the machine together (make the marble roll down the ramp and knock over the dominoes! The mousetrap pulls the lever down for the water funnel!) its creator proceeds to dump a bucket of water over the whole thing and seeing that some water has in fact made it into the glass, announces it a success. This image helps illustrate the tremendous inefficiencies created by the complexity of these systems.
OUSA’s recommendations for Reforming Ontario’s Student Financial Assistance System make up one of our most important policy papers. This year, students have boldly faced all of the complexities of financial assistance—including the leviathan that is OSAP—and offer up their vision for better, more equitable aid systems that increase the affordability and accessibility of university.
Our authors’ recommendations look to increase the flexibility and accuracy of government aid programs. OSAP is complex because it attempts to cater to individual circumstances. Students would like to see the system continue to develop in this direction- however, the government has to stop pouring water all over this intricate machine. Attention should be focused on making assessment and allocation more accurate. This policy paper dedicates almost 15 pages to discussing government student loans, with about a third of those pages detailing recommendations for how the provincial and federal governments could improve their need assessments. More specifically, it’s time these “co-ordinating” governments use identical criteria—no more double standards, no more shirked responsibilities. Ultimately, students would like to see a single need assessment, eliminating the need to set arbitrary provincial and federal limits on “allowable costs” and conflicting expectations for parental and spousal contributions.
After discussing the borrowed money students get from the government, authors look to the “free” government money—and of course, students always want more. But this request is an honest one. Some government grant, bursary, or tax credit programs actively shut out students with the most financial need. If eligibility for the OTG and Ontario Access Grant were no longer tied to secondary school completion, adult learners, Indigenous students, or any student who takes a break between secondary school and university would gain access to these programs. Tax credits disproportionately benefit high-income earners and are awarded to students too late in the year to be applied to education and living costs. OUSA suggests that the funds earmarked to honour tuition, textbook, and education tax credits be redirected towards upfront grant programs that help Ontario’s most vulnerable students.
While these are some of the more potent recommendations this year, authors also discuss increasing government savings incentives for families, the efficacy of institutional financial aid, and students’ access to information.
This policy attempts to take a bird’s eye view of the financial assistance system, and imagine what it could look like if all its mechanisms were better coordinated and more efficient. Authors have done an impressive job breaking this system down and making it accessible to their peers.
OUSA’s Reforming Ontario’s Student Financial Assistance System policy paper can be viewed here; the brief is here. The policy statements lay out students’ vision for the system as a whole and the appendix offers an accessible introduction to the different mechanisms that make up student financial assistance.