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Pulled Grants Send Students Scrambling

End of $30 million program plays havoc with plans, says a single mom college student trying to escape welfare.

Jared Ferrie 9 Mar 2004TheTyee.ca

Jared Ferrie is a writer based in Vancouver.

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Nicole Crouch was making good progress in her plan to get off welfare and into a career. She entered North Island College in Courteny, B.C. and earned top marks. Now she's pulling 'A's as an undergraduate at Simon Fraser University. Next up, grad school.But the financial rug has been pulled out from under her, says the single mother of a three-year-old. Suddenly all those plans are up in the air.Crouch intended to do a Masters degree in Political Science in B.C. right after finishing her BA. But after the Liberal government eliminated the grant program she depended upon to fund her education, "I don't think that's possible anymore," she says.Strategy for getting aheadWhen her son Sam was barely a toddler, Crouch heeded welfare workers urging her to go back to school: "All they talk about is educating yourself and getting back into the workforce."As a single parent on income assistance, she qualified for extra funding that allowed her to take two courses per semester. The program paid for the courses, Sam's daycare while she was in classes, and their living expenses. At the time, the funding applied to single parents with children under six years old. Then the Liberal government changed the rules to cover only single parents with children under three.Crouch decided to bite the bullet and go full-time. It would mean taking out a student loan, but as a high needs student she knew she would qualify for a provincial study grant to offset her debt load. "The grant was what made it work," she says.She transferred to SFU and moved to East Vancouver where she now lives with Sam in a one bedroom basement suite. Her student loan, along with the study grant, is just enough to cover their living expenses. But she wonders how long it will be until she has to move to a bigger, more expensive apartment. For now, she and her son share a bedroom. "We can't do that forever, at some point Sam will need his own room," she says.She also worries about her skyrocketing student debt now that the provincial grants program has been cut.Average debt may more than doubleThe elimination of the $30 million provincial grants program will push the average student debt for a single parent graduating from a four-year university program from $30,000 to $70,000, according to Summer McFadyen of the Canadian Federation of Students. "It's going to deter many low and middle income students from pursuing post-secondary education," she says.The $30 million will now go to the universities. "What we chose to do was to redirect that funding to where it would help the most students and that was to the institutions," says Karen McDonald, spokesperson for the Ministry of Advanced Education. "If this increased funding mitigates tuition increases, that's going to have a positive impact on every student in the system.""I don't buy it," says McFadyen. She predicts that tuition fees will continue to rise and says that the elimination of the grants program amounts to a tuition fee increase for low income students anyway, "because it's money out of their pockets."McDonald says that universities need the extra funding in order to cover operating costs and create new seats.B.C. has the lowest ratio of university spots per population of all of Canada. The Liberals have committed to creating 25,000 new seats in order to bring the province up to the Canadian average. Some blame the NDP imposed tuition freeze for impoverishing B.C.'s universities so that they could not keep up with the rest of the country."That's a pretty creative version of history," responds McFadyen. "When the previous government had the tuition fee freeze in place they were increasing funding to colleges and universities."She maintains that there does not need to be choice made between funding universities and providing grants to low income students. "I think that if the government was making better choices and frankly doing a better job of managing the province's finances, then they would be doing both things."Standing committee not consultedMcFadyen feels that the B.C. government is out of step with its citizens. "Survey after survey shows that people want the government to invest money in the education system. They want everyone to be able to go to school regardless of their wealth," she says, adding that the government failed to consult its own Standing Committee on Student Financial Assistance. The body was created to make recommendations on the B.C. student loans program and the grants system."I don't really know what the rationale was and I'm almost scared to even try and guess what it would be, because I really don't want to acknowledge the kind of thinking that would be necessary for not approaching the standing committee," says Tree Kennedy, a studentrepresentative to the committee."When they're not consulting us and making grand changes, like for instance cutting the grant system, it makes a such a standing committee such as the one that I'm on obsolete and pointless," she adds.McDonald says that the ministry did not consult the committee because the change was outside the area of its expertise. "The committee comments on very specific aspects of the long range planning for the student financial aid program. This wasn't a decision that was solely about the student financial aid program, it was a decision about where all of the resources within the ministry would be going in terms of allocating ourbudget," she explains.But Kennedy wonders what the point of the committee is if not to make recommendations about such changes to financial aid. "I'm under the deep impression that this committee is just a really great way of making it look like there's been consultation," she says. "It's a way for them to say, 'We've actually talked to everybody and these are the recommendations they made. See, look at the report. Isn't it pretty?' and then doing whatever they want anyway."Loan remission program consideredMcDonald says that the ministry is looking at other options to relieve the financial pressure on low-income students. "The ministry is currently looking at loan remission programs.that will be a remission that you get or a grant that you get at the end of your studies to mitigate student loans," she saysShe says that loan remission programs are "more effective and more useful financial support mechanisms than the up front grants are."The remissions program is still in the development stage, says McDonald. She adds that, "because the loan remission program is a larger, broader, long-range initiative, that is something that that committee would certainly have the opportunity to comment on if they wish."Kennedy says that at the meeting of the committee on Tuesday, she and other members "expressed concern at the lack of grants and the panic that it's causing among students."She says that ministry representatives skirted the issue saying only that "the grant system is gone and its time to start looking at remission grants and other forms of payback."But she is concerned with the lack of concrete alternatives. "There's no real plan so we're still looking at the system saying, 'What are you doing to replace [the grants]?' And it was just, 'We are working on it and we'll have more info for you by the next meeting.'"Crouch isn't holding her breath. She says that when she heard about the cut she immediately started looking into universities in other provinces. She doesn't want to leave B.C., especially since her son's father moved across the country from Halifax to be close to him. "It would be really hard for Sam," she says, "but it would only be two years and it's not a great idea to spend the rest of his life at home with me paying off this huge debt."Jared Ferrie is on staff at The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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