What the Progressive Conservatives’ changes to OSAP mean for these students

Doug Ford’s government has introduced sweeping changes to the province’s student-loan program. TVO.org speaks with three students to find out how the new system will shape their education and their future
By H.G. Watson - Published on May 2, 2019
graduation caps
Under OSAP changes introduced by the Progressive Conservative government, grants will still be available for low-income families, but they won’t cover the entire cost of tuition. (iStock.com/TheaDesign)

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On January 17, the Progressive Conservative government overhauled Ontario’s student-loan program.

Gone were the grants, introduced in 2016 by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals, that had amounted to free tuition for many students: in 2017, 185,00 students participated in the program. Next year, people whose parents make more than $140,000 a year will be eligible to receive only loans. Grants will still be available for low-income families, but they won’t cover the entire cost of tuition.

The province also eliminated the interest-free six-month grace period on Ontario’s portion of the loan, a move it said would bring them in line with the federal government; in the federal budget released on March 19, though, the Liberals eliminated the interest on the federal portion during the grace period. (Students still will not have to start making payments on both portions for six months after they graduate.)

The PCs have also mandated a 10 per cent tuition cut and required universities and colleges to make many ancillary fees optional.

Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities, has said that these changes “put students first”: “Our government cares very much about making post-secondary education affordable and accessible," she told the CBC’s Metro Morning in January.

Critics say the opposite — that these changes could hurt students. “It's super disruptive,” says Erika Shaker, director of education and outreach at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. “It is definitely anxiety-producing.”

What impact will these changes have on current and prospective post-secondary students? TVO.org spoke with three Ontarians about how the new OSAP funding model has affected their educational goals, financial outlook, and future plans.

“It just feels like the government’s priority is not the people.”

Grace Smith had decided it was time for a career change. She was working as a dance choreographer and teacher and writing for a dance-focused magazine, but she wanted to be a journalist. “I just wanted to find like, stability,” she says, noting that when she told people that, they often laughed, as journalism is not generally considered a stable profession. But she wasn’t deterred. “It just felt like that was a job that I really wanted.” And Smith assumed that she would have six interest-free months after her studies were finished to look for a job.

She successfully applied for Ryerson University’s graduate journalism program and qualified for about $20,000 from OSAP — half grant, half loan.

Although she still falls into the low-income-family category and so will be eligible for grants, Smith will likely have more loans to contend with. According to calculations done by TVO.org on the OSAP calculator, a single graduate student in Ryerson’s Master of Journalism program with a total income of $50,000 can expect to receive $2,700 in grants and $16,800 in loans for the 2019-20 school year.

Smith, who’s on track to graduate in 2020, had thought she’d be able to finish school with only $10,000 worth of government-funded loans — but now, she believes she’ll be paying down more debt as she’ll have more loans, and interest will start accruing as soon as she graduates. She worries that she’ll have to find a job quickly instead of taking the time to find one that’s the right fit.

“It just feels like the government’s priority is not the people,” Smith says. “They’re not thinking about the future and what more educated people mean for the future.”

“I'm just kind of concerned about interest and … where the money's going to come from for the tuition.”

Olivier Szczepaniak had no reason to expect that he wouldn’t attend university next year. The student-body president at Resurrection Catholic Secondary School in Kitchener had applied to Wilfrid Laurier University’s Bachelor of Business Administration and was waiting on news of his acceptance.

He had counted on grants to cover most, if not all, of the more than $9,000 in yearly tuition fees. Szczepaniak has six siblings; one is already in university. “Unfortunately, my family is unable to financially support me at all,” he says.

But, now, Szczepaniak is putting his plans on hold. “I’m planning on actually taking a gap year due to the fact that it's going to be difficult for me to pay for [university],” he says. “I'm just kind of concerned about interest and … where the money's going to come from for the tuition.”

He’s hoping he’ll be able to get a job at the local factory where his father works so that he can make between $20,000 and $30,000 for his studies in 2020. In the meantime, he’s put in an application at Starbucks. “My friends are all super-excited, like, ‘We're going to university. This is so awesome! And here I'm like, oh yeah, university. I'm not going to be able to attend due to the fact that my family just happens to be poor.”

The political climate has brought out the activist in Szczepaniak. He organized the walkout at his high school as part of the wider April 4 general walkout protesting changes to Ontario’s education system. He also started a change.org petition calling on Ford to reconsider cuts to local schools — it gathered 89,932 signatures.

Szczepaniak is also thinking about what his post-university life will look like — and he’s decided that he wants to make a difference. “It's kind of crazy. Over the last couple months, I've really kind of immersed myself in this field of politics; I've had opportunities to talk to a lot of MPs and MPPs. I feel like I might work in business, but somewhere where I can actually contribute to society, whether it'd be something like a self-sustainable charity,” he says. “Or perhaps just go straight into politics.”

“It's not completely set me off of my initial path, but it's creating doubt.”

Layan Rasoul wants to be an eye doctor and surgeon one day.

To do that, she’ll first need to get an undergraduate degree. In the fall, she’ll be attending the University of Ottawa, majoring in the French program in biomedical science. “I wasn't actually originally planning on applying to Ottawa,” she says. “But I ended up doing it in case I wanted to keep my French, and then it became my top choice.”

The changes to OSAP haven’t altered Rasoul’s future plans. She’s still going to start classes in fall 2019. But under the old loan program, her tuition would have mostly been covered by grants. Now, she’ll be receiving mostly loans — and that’s a source of anxiety for Rasoul. “You always worry about having to pay back money,” she says. “Then, with the increase of loans and decrease of giving out grants, that becomes a little bit more worrying.”

Under the new OSAP rules introduced by the PC government, Rasoul calculates that she will likely graduate with close to $30,000 in debt. If she subsequently attends medical school, that debt could potentially surpass six figures — tuition at professional schools is much higher, which means that students often have to take out lines of credit from banks in addition to government-backed loans.

“I'm either going to have to get another job or … apply for more bursaries and grants,” she says. “But it's definitely a worry. It's not completely set me off of my initial path, but it's creating doubt.”

Rasoul has been moved to take action. She’s part of Students Say No, a group organizing against education cuts across the province. Like Szczepaniak, she organized her school’s general walkout in early April — in her case, at Applewood Heights Secondary School, in Mississauga.

“It's pretty frustrating,” she says. “[We should have to worry about our] own schooling and our own stresses. But now we have to worry about [Ford’s] changes on top of that.”

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