It’s Time to Cut Down Barriers to Post-secondary Education

I remember my Grade 10 careers class like it was yesterday. I remember because it’s the exact time I decided I wanted to pursue a PhD and to become a Psychologist. At that time, I also thought it was the type of career where you just gave advice to people all day, for hundreds of dollars an hour, just like all my friends asked me to do for them constantly. I was good at that. I thought that was what a psychologist did. You know what would have been helpful then? Access to a knowledgeable and certified career counsellor who could share with me more information about what this career entailed and the pathway (with alternate pathways) one could follow to get to it. 

I also remember specifically what my careers teacher and guidance counsellor told me about getting a PhD.

“Sure Amanda, you can do that. Or you can do something else instead and not rack up 11 years’ worth of debt from all the schooling that would take."

So my dreams of getting a PhD were shattered instantly. That is when I had first experienced debt aversion, and it has stayed with me ever since. You know what would have helped with that? The continued learning and knowledge intake of guidance counsellors who remain up to date on financial aid and any inkling at all regarding how graduate schools work (spoiler alert, most research based programs pay for you to be there. It’s a job. Oh, and there are programs like Master of Counselling or MSWs that can result in the same counselling-based career I was looking for).

I have been known to be an overachiever and I persevere quite a bit, so naturally, the PhD dream came back to me. When making the decision to attend post-secondary, I remember sitting on the living room floor, talking to my parents, and saying that I didn’t want to apply for OSAP because I didn’t want to have debt. I wanted them to pay for my education, or to come up with some plan so that I didn’t have to accrue any debt. I had never had debt before. I didn’t even have a credit card. You know what would have helped with that? Information being sent to parents from my high school informing them about financial aid, scholarships, and bursaries. Or information about actual debt level outcomes, the cap on paying back loans that OSAP implements, and the repayment assistance plan they offer. 

I almost didn’t have the means to attend university because I was so debt averse. It was only when my parents came up with a plan to ease my aversion that I committed to applying to OSAP. They generously told me that after four years, when I was done my undergrad, that they would sell their home and the money from that could be used to pay off my student loans. I found comfort in this thought, knowing my parents would take care of me and my debt no matter what, even if that might have been a slightly ambitious or unrealistic plan (i.e., white lie). 

So, I secured an undergraduate degree from Western thanks to maximum amounts of OSAP and equal parts ‘surprise’ grants and bursaries as I like to refer to them as. It seemed random and unexpected each time I would get a bursary from the school based on grades and/or financial need. I never knew until half way through each school year that I would be getting some sort of money outside of loans. This has fed into my current “everything will turn out” regarding money and budgeting mindset (not a great way to live!). You know what would have been helpful? Net billing. The ability to see how much I actually had to pay with financial and institutional aid factored in (I am referring to all scholarships and bursaries here) sent with my acceptance, would have made my decision to attend post-secondary much easier and much less stressful for me and my family.

I then started a Master’s program at Laurier with about $40 000 of debt. But you know what? It wasn’t so bad because I had recently learned that Master and PhD programs in psychology actually pay you to be there. How cool is that?! I mean, you’re not making millions or anything (and are still technically living below the poverty line…), but it’s enough that combined with savings from the past four years, and some part time jobs, that I was able to plan for paying off all my debt before my PhD would be complete. Take that, high school guidance counsellor!  

What I wanted to illustrate with this example is that secondary school students, their families, and guidance counsellors are typically not well informed about the student financial assistance system or about post-secondary pathways. Being deterred from entering post-secondary because of debt aversion is not acceptable. This is an access problem that can be solved with a comprehensive access strategy that includes early outreach programs, better training of guidance and career counsellors, more focus on financial literacy in careers class, more teaching of parents and students about the financial aid system as it applies to post-secondary, and the introduction of net-billing. I look forward to the provincial government really considering the changes it needs to make, so that no willing student is deterred from beginning their post-secondary path.