Unsustainable student debt threatens future generations and the Canadian economy | Roxanne Dubois

From the archives: In 2012, students across the country organized a National Day of Action on February 1. In the lead-up to the day, I wrote a series of posts prompting students to get active in the fight for Education as a right for themselves and the generations of students coming after them. I am re-publishing these posts in the wake of Doug Ford's attack on students' unions in Ontario, the only organized and well-resourced force that has historically resisted tuition fee increases and funding cuts to post-secondary education.

Unsustainable student debt threatens future generations and the Canadian economy | Roxanne Dubois
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It is impossible to turn a blind eye to the numbers. On average, a student in Canada graduates with $27,000 of public debt. Collectively, students owe the federal government over $15 billion and much more in provincial and private loans such as bank loans or credit cards. Loans given out by the federal government increase by roughly $1 million a day and students are taking on more debt than ever before.

The fact that tuition fees have increased four-fold over the past three decades is largely to blame for the current student debt crisis. Some students may be lucky enough to gather all the resources needed to pay for their tuition fees, but the majority of students, however, are not. Most of us require loans to put ourselves through school. That’s not to mention a job paying minimum wage will not cover a year’s tuition fees, never mind living costs. We pay thousands of dollars in tuition fees and often struggle to find a decent job.

Limited personal finances deny many people the chance to access education. The majority of people who have made the very difficult and complex decision to not pursue their education largely state “financial issues” as a main deciding factor. In fact, the mere thought of having to get deep into debt to get an education is enough to prevent many from pursuing higher education. This fear of personal sacrifice of debt accumulation and repayment is overwhelming to many.

Studies have shown that the aversion to debt has major consequences on a student’s choices. Aversion to debt can often direct a student’s choice of academic discipline according to a field that will be more prone to better debt repayment, or it may affect a student’s choice of region of study, or whether to go onto a professional program. Put differently, students must choose between what they are passionate about, what society needs and what pays the most. All these factors impact how much money students need to borrow to finish their degree, and for how long they will be paying their loans after graduation.

Taking on student debt also has a more insidious effect. Students from low- and middle-income families are disadvantaged, at first, by not having the upfront resources to pay for their studies. Certain demographics will also face a second disadvantage when paying back their loans. Women, racialized people and members of other marginalized communities already earn a lower income average over their lifetime. Having to pay back loans for a longer period of time simply means paying more in interest and much more than they would have paid for their degree in the first place.

All this means that an under-funded system of post-secondary education imposing increased tuition fees creates losing conditions for students. It also means that the government is transferring its responsibility to fund post-secondary education onto the backs of students and their families. If we are not diligent in fighting for education to be a right it may stop being the great economic equalizer, and simply act to recreate social and economic division.