The Inequitable Burden of University Costs

When we talk about the affordability of tuition, it is often easy to homogenize the student population and create conclusions that fail to assess how students from different backgrounds experience university costs. We make these generalizations, despite the fact that data exists to show how students with marginalized identities face a larger financial burden when attending university. This data is the reason why both the Ontario and federal governments create programs and grants that direct additional funds towards students with disabilities and Indigenous students.

Over the past four months, I had the opportunity to craft an independent research project related to tuition by using new data collected from OUSA’s Ontario Post-Secondary Student Survey (OPSSS). The OPSSS is an exceptionally important source of information, as it includes, among many other things, indicators on the financial well-being of students. With this data available to us, it was clear that, in order to effectively advocate on the needs of marginalized students, we needed to clearly understand the relationship between tuition and students with marginalized identities. For the research project I focused on three demographic groups: Indigenous students, queer students, and students with disabilities.The data demonstrated, unsurprisingly, that significant inequities exist in our post-secondary system.

For Indigenous students, OPSSS data revealed that, despite receiving slightly greater levels of government assistance, Indigenous students are still more likely to accumulate debt in comparison to non-Indigenous students. This increased likelihood of debt accumulation suggests that specific grants and programs targeted to Indigenous peoples do not fully ameliorate the financial differences between Indigenous students and non-Indigenous students. A clear issue found in the OPSSS data is that only 3.8% of Indigenous respondents reported accessing Post-Secondary Student Support Program (PSSSP) funds. The inaccessibility of PSSSP reaffirms the value in OUSA’s policy that the federal government should allow all self-identified Indigenous peoples to access this program (rather than only status First Nations and Inuit), and lift the 2% funding cap on the program.

Similarly, the OPSSS elucidated that financial disparities exist between queer students and heterosexual students. In particular, the data found that queer students are more likely to accumulate debt, withdraw less from RESPs, and have higher concerns over post-secondary affordability, despite having similar financial backgrounds as heterosexual students. These statistics suggest that not all queer students can access their family’s financial resources in the same manner as heterosexual students. However, unlike Indigenous students and students with disabilities, both the Ontario and federal governments do not provide queer students with specific grants or bursaries. Queer students in Ontario who face economic challenges must rely on privately-funded scholarships, such as the Bill 7 Award, that are not as well advertised and have burdensome application processes. The gaps identified by the OPSSS on the affordability of a university education between queer students and heterosexual students reflect a need for a government-funded bursary specifically targeted towards financially vulnerable queer students.

The OPSSS data also demonstrated that students with disabilities continue to have a financial disadvantage in comparison to able bodied students. Like other marginalized students, students with disabilities are more likely to accumulate debt and have concerns over the affordability of university attendance. Such concerns continue to exist for students with disabilities despite the grants and programs that currently exist to reduce the costs associated with having a disability. Although the OPSSS did not track whether students with disabilities accessed disability-specific grants, it is clear that the grants currently provided have failed to adequately ameliorate financial disparities between able-bodied students and students with disabilities. This data reaffirms the importance of OUSA’s policy that recommends that the federal government expand the eligibility criteria for federal grants, bursaries, and programs to include students with temporary disabilities.

These findings reinforce why OUSA prioritizes the principles of accessibility and affordability in our advocacy efforts. The OPSSS data clearly illustrated how systemic racism, heterosexism, and ableism intersect with economic precarity to disadvantage students with marginalized identities. Moving forward, it is my hope that the Ontario and federal governments look at this evidence, recognize the continued existence of these inequities, and ultimately expand on the targeted student bursaries and programs. These inequities are constructed by society, and with long-term government commitment we can work to deconstruct them.

Read Mackenzie’s capstone here.