Policy shift needed for greater PSE accessibility

In the last few weeks we’ve heard a lot about skyrocketing tuition rates and what it means for students. I’m going to share a bit of my past, my journey to Laurier and the childhood friends that were left behind due to the cost barriers associated with obtaining a higher education.

I spent the last few years of my childhood in the Riverdale neighbourhood of the east end of Hamilton. The neighbourhood features a high immigrant population and a high poverty rate. Starting at a young age I was fortunate enough to be constantly pushed by my parents towards attending university.

However, despite knowing for most of my childhood life that I was going to attend university, I did not put much thought into how I would fund it. It wasn’t until grade 11 that I conducted some research into how much it cost and the options available for me to help pay for school.

The thought of having a significant amount of debt follow me around for the next few years after finishing my degree made me second guess enrolling. I even stuck around for a victory lap under the guise of wanting to play varsity football for an extra year while in truth it was to be able to save up more money for university and take an extra year to make a decision. Although that’s my personal experience and the experience a few of my friends went through, some didn’t even come close.

Not only did most of my friends not end up attending college or university, but for most the thought never even entered their minds. This is not atypical as low income students are more likely to have parents or guardians who also didn’t attend post-secondary education (PSE). Parental influence is the leading factor as to whether or not one decides to continue with higher education.

A significant amount of the population that did attend university or college chose the affordable commuter option in McMaster or Mohawk. Otherwise, after graduating high school, they went straight to the work force into whatever opportunities they could find. This is highly problematic as over the next ten years, 70 per cent of the jobs in Ontario will require some sort of post-secondary education.

I’ll be the first to thank the provincial government for the significant investments they have made in post-secondary education in the last few years. However, despite the increase in seats at institutions the participation gap between the highest income quartile and lowest income quartile has not changed. In fact, since 2003 this gap has actually increased.

In order to alleviate these issues we need to make several public policy changes. There must be a shift from tax credits to up front non-repayable grants, an increase in the awareness of financial aid programs, presentation of PSE options to students early and often in high school and target low income neighbourhoods with holistic early outreach programs.

If we are truly going to create an Ontario that is prosperous, open and accessible, especially for those who are ensnared in the cycle of poverty, we must make these changes immediately.

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