Aid overhaul welcomed by students, university

Western officials see the Ontario government’s promise of free university tuition for students from low-income families as a giant leap toward greater access to postsecondary education.

In the 2016 Ontario Budget, released last week, the provincial government promised reforms to its student financial aid system. The new Ontario Student Grant (OSG), which will be instated in the 2017-18 school year, will replace the 30% Off Ontario Tuition grant, the Ontario Student Opportunity Grant, Ontario Access Grants and other grants offered by the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP). All of the funds from these programs will be redirected to the new OSG.

Under the OSG, students whose family income is $50,000 or below will have no provincial student debt, a promise that aims to increase access to universities and colleges and make tuition more affordable.

“I am incredibly happy. This is exactly what the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, which is what the University Students’ Council (USC) is a member of, has been advocating for, for so many years,” said Lindsee Perkins, Vice-President (External) for the USC.

“This is really going to affect a large number of students in Ontario, particularly those in the lower-income bracket, who may not feel they have the opportunity to receive a postsecondary education. More importantly, with the changes being made to the student financial aid system, every student is still going to get the same amount of support they would with the old system, or more.”

While the OSG specifically promises free tuition to students from low-income families, the budget also points out all Ontario students will receive no less than they are currently eligible for under the 30% Off Ontario Tuition grant.

Students from low-income families can also expect to receive funds exceeding university tuition costs, which means more non-repayable money for cost-of-living expenses.

The provincial government also promises to:

  • Expand financial support for mature and married students. Eligibility for grant support will no longer be tied to the number of years a student has been out of high school, and the amount a student’s spouse is expected to contribute will be reduced;
  • Raise the Ontario weekly assistance maximum levels for individuals, and married and sole-support parents; and
  • Increase access to interest-free and low-cost loans for middle- and upper-income families by reducing their expected parental contributions.

Students are expected to have less debt than they would under the current system and the maximum OSAP debt level will be capped at $10,000 annually for higher-income families. Financial assistance remains in place for those who have difficulty repaying their student loans.

Upon graduation, students often feel pressure to find jobs to start repaying their loans, but are not necessarily jobs in their area of specialization, Perkins said.

“I think this program allows students to sit in that comfortable amount of debt, or sit in no debt at all, and find a job that really does fit the skillset they were learning during university,” she said.

OSAP has become complicated for people and the changes proposed will make it easier for Western students to navigate, said University Registrar Glen Tigert.

“The university sees this as a positive outcome,” Tigert said. “About 50 per cent of our Western population will be impacted in some way or another. This does include everybody who is currently receiving Ontario tuition grants and OSAP loans and grants combined.”

The changes to the Ontario student financial aid program will offer a better picture of their out-of-pocket costs, so they may plan accordingly, he explains.

“Now, students will know, year-over-year, upfront how much their grant will be, offsetting the tuition they are going to be paying,” Tigert said.

In the past, students applied for the Ontario Student Opportunity Grant after they consolidated their loans.

The Registrar’s Office will be working with ministry representatives and the Council of Ontario Universities to determine how to the changes to the student financial aid program will affect operations, particularly in billing tuition.

While the fine details of the changes outlined in the provincial budget are still uncertain, Tigert feels improvements in the transparency of the student financial aid process will greatly benefit Western students.

“Simplifying OSAP is a good thing and it effectively targets the right group of students in providing support to low-income families,” he said. “Being able to predict what your out-of-pocket costs are going to be for the year is also a very positive thing.”