Nova Scotians voice student assistance concerns

Students, parents struggling with heavy post-secondary debt

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Kaley Kennedy and Elise Graham, both from the Canadian Federation of Student-Nova Scotia, add their voices to the discussion on Nova Scotia student assistance. (Photo: Peter de Vries)

About 15 people made suggestions to improve Nova Scotia's student assistance program Thursday at the Nova Scotia Community College.

Alan Blyth, a consultant hired by Premier Darrell Dexter's New Democratic Party, asked the crowd what they would do to reduce the burden of debt on Nova Scotia students, and what debt cap amount would be appropriate.

Kaley Kennedy, government relations and research co-ordinator at the Canadian Federation of Students-Nova Scotia, said tuition fees must be considered in the context of capping debt.

"It's not as simple as just capping debt," said Kennedy.

"The intention of any debt reduction program shouldn't be to manage or limit debt, but to reduce the amount of debt a student has at the end of their degree."

The largest amount of financial assistance available to a Nova Scotia student is $360 per week if the student is enrolled in a post-secondary program from September to April.

Expecting too much

Brittany Faulkner, a single mother earning a bachelor of arts degree at Saint Mary's University, works 20 hours a week in addition to studying full-time.

She said not only is her student loan not helping enough, but it's also stopping her from applying for income assistance.

"I really am struggling, and my marks are falling a bit because I have to work as much as I do to survive."

She said a combination of student loans with income assistance could be beneficial to people in her situation, and the $400 she earns every two weeks from her job is barely enough to pay for food and clothing.

"I'm not making anything right now, and yet I'm expected to pay for everything."

Kennedy said students in situations like Faulkner's are being unfairly forced to cope with many other flaws in the province's student assistance plan.

"Why are we even charging interest on student loans?" Kennedy said. "We're basically saying that poor people who can't pay the up-front costs are going to have to pay more for their education because they have to pay interest."

A parent's financial frustrations

Blyth asked the crowd, now down to eight, how much financial support parents should be expected to give to their children's education.

Rocky Sillicker said he was surprised when he found out the registered education savings plan (RESP) he had been saving for his daughter's university education wasn't considered a contribution by the provincial government.

"I'm still expected to make another contribution besides that, and I'm really not in a position to afford to," he said.

The RESP should be considered a parental contribution, said Sillicker.

Kennedy said Nova Scotia's student assistance program needs an overhaul.

"We should be looking at a needs-based system, not necessarily an income-based system where we're basing everything on what a student's family makes."

The government is holding public meetings across the province between Nov. 16 and 30 on student assistance programs.

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