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Free Tuition or “Free” Tuition – does it matter?

The government’s promise of free tuition for low-income students is not a deception; it’s a clarification.

Last week Premier Kathleen Wynne joined OUSA’s President and two other student representatives to discuss the newly announced Ontario Student Grant (OSG) and its promise of free tuition for low-income students.

Observers, including Jane Taber in the Globe and Mail, were quick to pick up on the fact that the Premier noted certain caveats and admitted that she herself had wondered whether “free” was really the best messaging for this announcement. After all, tuition will not be eliminated for low-income students; rather, they will now receive grants in excess of average tuition. Not free per se, but effectively free most of the time.

Some took this as an admission that the government’s announcements have been deliberately misleading or deceptive, but I don’t quite agree. These details and caveats are spelled out clearly in the budget, were mentioned in the initial announcement, and have been described in subsequent press releases. Yes, government messengers have simplified and played up the "free" aspect on banners and tweets, but in my view, this has mostly been about cutting to the chase on a subject that's usually confusing.

Students need to know, in plain English, what their costs will be at the end of the day. With the OSG in play, the answer for most low-income students is “zero.” Telling students that their tuition will be free is a way of explaining what this announcement means in real-world terms.

This clarity is critically important. Up until now, the labyrinthine nature of Ontario’s financial aid system has been one of its biggest failings. For many, low net tuition has already been a reality, but students haven't had the understanding of the system to make it work. Prospective students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, take one look at Ontario’s high tuition and go running, a well-researched phenomenon known as “sticker shock.”  Some persist one step further and explore their financial aid options, but when they do, they find themselves faced with a 300-page OSAP manual and the task of trying to figure out how much financial aid they will get, when they will get it, in how many pieces they will get it, and how much of it they will have to repay.

When we discuss how this affects those from low-income backgrounds, it is important to recognize that we are also talking about students from marginalized communities, indigenous students, racialized students, and other populations that are disproportionately over-represented in the low-income bracket.

There is no point in having robust financial aid (and we have had one) if nobody understands it. Even with a fairly generous system, we have seen people who could have accessed higher education turn away because of its opacity.

Improvements to financial aid therefore require attention to two areas: actual costs, and perceived costs. The OSG addresses the former by repurposing across-the-board benefits like tax credits into up-front grants for low-income families. It addresses the latter by giving a straightforward answer to the question that students care about the most: “can I afford this?” Simple, clear messaging has been needed.

What has also been lost in this discussion is the extent to which students have been asking for these very changes. For a decade, our students have advocated on behalf of students for more targeted grants and a simplified system. We have not been alone in these requests, either: other student groups have recommended similar measures. With the announcement of the OSG, the government has signaled that they take student needs and student recommendations seriously. We should be applauding that attitude.

So let’s regain some perspective, here. The OSG dramatically simplifies our financial aid system, which will improve access to higher education in and of itself. Announcing clearly that tuition will generally cost nothing for low-income students is a necessary part of encouraging and attracting those who may have given up on higher education.

Whether it’s written on a banner as free, free* or “free” isn’t really the most important issue. The OSG will make tuition effectively free for most students from low-income backgrounds, exactly as it says in the budget plan. What matters is that more students will be accessing higher education, and they will be paying thousands less in tuition and loan repayment. This is the most significant improvement to Ontario’s financial aid system in years. We should not diminish it by quibbling over branding.

Zachary Rose
OUSA Executive Director