Loan debt a burden for students

68% of N.S. students borrowed to finance their education

Students protest high tuition fees and student debt on Feb. 1 at the National Student Day of Action. (Photo: Adam Scotti)

Sarah Mitchell doesn't regret her decision to transfer universities, but she does hope it'll be worth it.

A second-year student at Acadia University, Mitchell, 22, transferred to the university in Wolfville this September. She studied at the University of Calgary - in her home city - for a year and a half prior to making the switch.

"I knew in my head it would be expensive because I was leaving the province. I would start paying for where I was living, and all that stuff would add up. But I didn't, at that time, actually know the huge tuition change. That's only becoming more and more apparent as people talk about it," says Mitchell.

Mitchell's one of the many students faced with high tuition fees in Nova Scotia - the third highest in the country. And more than that, she's one of many students studying in Nova Scotia taking on massive student loan debt so she can attend university.

Determining the amount of money you can borrow:

Allowable costs - resources = need for assistance

Allowable costs include the cost of your tuition, books, living costs, local transportation, return transportation etc. Apart from tuition, these are not actual costs, but are fixed amounts determined by the federal government. Resources include the funds students have (or are assumed to have) to contribute to their educational costs. 

For Mitchell, including a $10,000 line of credit, she'll have almost $50,000 worth of debt upon graduation.

According to the Canadian Federation of Students, the average undergraduate student debt in Nova Scotia is $31,000. The Maritime Provinces Higher Education Commission stated that, in 2007, 68 per cent of Nova Scotia students borrowed (from government, banks, family members and other sources) in order to finance their education.

Gabe Hoogers, the National Executive Representative for the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) says student loan debt is one of the main points they're rallying to change on today's National Student Day of Action.

"Student loan debt affects students while they're studying - [both their] mentality and the way they can actually undertake their studies. Many, many students are being forced to take on one or two or more part-time jobs while they study, which obviously impacts the way they can be students," he says. Hoogers is also the president of the University of King's College student union.

Mitchell is just one specific example. She applied for a total of $11,940 in loans this year, 60 per cent of which comes from the federal government, while the other 40 per cent comes from the Alberta provincial government.

But she says it hasn't been enough.

"I just signed up for a student line of credit at the bank this year, just as some extra padding. I guess just all of the unexpected costs of setting up... were really expensive for me," she says.

Comparing fees

At the University of Calgary, in 2010-2011 annual tuition fees for full-time undergraduate students were $5,238. At Acadia University, they were $5,369 for Nova Scotia students and $6,391 for out-of-province students. Nova Scotia and Quebec are the only two provinces that still have higher tuition rates for out-of-province students.

But Mitchell says in her first semester alone, she paid approximately $4,000. Her second semester also cost over $3,000. She's studying sociology and international development studies at Acadia.

She said that while she was studying at the University of Calgary, she didn't need a student loan. While her parents paid her tuition in first year, including books, she now has to pay that on her own.

"Twelve grand a year, plus a bit more, makes a four-year undergrad look very scary," she says.

Hoogers says not only is a $31,000 debt a major problem for students during university, but more so it's a major issue when they graduate.

"Just as students are trying to find legs in the working world and trying to settle down, that is a huge burden that prevents them from actually contributing to the economy in a meaningful way," says Hoogers.

Government Action

Last year, the Nova Scotia provincial budget included changes to help improve the accessibility of student assistance for Nova Scotia students. It introduced, for the first time ever, a debt cap of $28,560 that a student may accumulate. While the cap will be introduced over the course of four years, and will only include new loans handed out, it was a move to help students with the burden of student loan debt.

The budget also included an increase in available assistance funds, such as an increase in weekly maximum assistance rates from $150 to $160 per week and a $500 increase in book allowance.

"Post-secondary education provides a tremendous advantage to the individual, their families and the economy and we're committed to making it accessible," said the Minister of Advanced Education Marilyn More in a news release about the provincial budget last year. "We wanted to improve assistance to as many students as possible and I'm pleased to say that we've made considerable progress."

A representative from the Department of Labour and Advanced Education was not available for comment.

Mitchell says she'll be attending the rally in Wolfville for the Student Day of Action. She knows that if there's an increase in tuition, that's going to increase her debt even more.

"I'm hoping that it's worth it. That at the end of my undergrad... even though it's cost me an outrageous amount [of money], it's worth it," she says.

"I'm willing to pay it because I want to be here so badly."

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