Submission to the Alberta Students’ Finance Board
Accessibility is affordability
In times of financial contraction, demand for and participation in post-secondary
education increases. To a large extent, Alberta has prepared itself by creating a more
flexible and responsive system, which has easily accommodated an increase of tens of
thousands of students across the province. In major urban centers, some post-
secondary institutions have seen year-over-year application and enrollment increases of
more than 25%.
However, it would be unwise to measure accessibility – understood as the elimination of
barriers to participation – solely by metrics of demand. Despite increasing enrollment,
financial barriers pose a serious and ongoing threat to realizing the dream of an
accessible system of post-secondary education. Every year, tuition, mandatory fees,
and living costs continue to rise, despite decreased ability to meet these financial
demands. Making matters worse are the proposed exceptional increases to tuition fees
through dramatic amendments to the tuition fee regulation. Such changes threaten to
make financial barriers to post-secondary education even harder to overcome.
For these reasons, a better approach to accessibility lies in monitoring and supporting
in-program students during these times of financial vulnerability.
Challenges in a contracting market
Whether first-time learners or those re-entering, Alberta post-secondary students have
demonstrated concern over their ability to continue their program of studies. A recent
survey found that nearly one-half of students worried about running short of funds
before the end of their academic year; one third of those surveyed were concerned that
their money would run out by Christmas break.
This, alongside record high student unemployment rates over the summer, where one
in five students was unable to find a job, and a competitive part-time job market, it is
little wonder why students are concerned. Traditional means of student self-support
are no longer sufficient for meeting mounting financial obligations.
These circumstances are all the more troubling with the realization that students are
not the only ones paying for their education. Over 70% of the cost of attending post-
secondary is covered by taxpayers. When students leave their programs with half of a
diploma or a few credits shy of a degree, it is the taxpayers who ultimately lose out. In
order for Albertans to realize the investments made in students, it is crucial that post-
secondary completion rates increase.
A strong student financial aid system is a key means of enabling Albertans to continue
to participate in the post-secondary institutions responsible for creating the knowledge,
opportunities and workforce needed to fuel the next generation economy.
Help students help themselves
The Alberta Students’ Executive Council (ASEC) recommends that the Students’ Finance
Board take action to increase accessibility by empowering students to help themselves.
The mix of resources students use to finance their education – a blend of savings,
loans, scholarships and part-time earnings – is changing. Financial aid must change
We believe this can be accomplished in three ways:
1.) Continue to provide aid to all qualified students.
ASEC commends the Alberta Student Loan program for its decision not to cap the
number of students it supports. Any student who meets admission criteria and
demonstrates financial need should be able to access it.
2.) Increase the monthly living allowance.
While average rents, food costs and fuel costs have largely held steady, earnings
from part-time employment and summer savings have dramatically declined. This
market discrepancy has meant that a growing number of students are without the
financial cushion they need to weather the long academic year. Increasing the
monthly living allowance from $941 to a more reasonable, market-appropriate
number would help address students’ unmet financial need.
3.) Increase the part-time earnings exemption.
In 2007-2008, the part-time earnings exemption was increased to $800 per month.
This was an important step forward for students who must work throughout the
academic year to support themselves, but there is much ground still to cover. Given
the lack of summer savings and dim post-graduation prospects, many learners are
eager to minimize debt loads while in-program. Increasing the amount a student is
able to earn while studying is an effective means of relieving this financial burden.
It bears mentioning that ASEC has prescribed these remedies in the past. We return to
them now not only because we believe them to be sound policy tools, but because they
can have a direct and immediate positive impact on the lives of tens of thousands of
students and, in turn, Alberta taxpayers as a whole. By reducing the financial anxiety
of some, these remedies will help reduce financial risk for all.