A Laurentian University student leader said he's “very, very happy” overall with a new grant providing upfront funds to cover the cost of tuition for low-income students, but warned they'll still pay a hefty bill.
The new Ontario Student Grant — which doesn't come into effect for another 18 months — makes average college or university tuition free for students from families with incomes of $50,000 or less.
Johnny Humphrey, president of the Students' General Association (SGA), Laurentian's largest student association, said what's being offered by the province won't completely cover many students' tuition.
The government said it will cover the average cost of university tuition in Ontario, which they said is $6,160.
But a Maclean's Magazine article using data from Statistics Canada found average undergraduate tuition in Ontario is $7,868.
The government said it didn't include tuition costs for more expensive professional programs in determining its average, instead basing it on arts and science programs.
At Laurentian University — where tuition is the lowest in the province — most programs cost $6,101, said Humphrey.
But when you add on ancillary fees, which includes a bus pass and health insurance, Laurentian students who belong to the SGA pay $6,901. Ancillary fees aren't covered by the new grant.
At other, more expensive universities, the average cost of tuition and ancillary fees together is something more like $8,000, Humphrey said.
Students in professional programs pay even more — tuition for Laurentian engineering students is $7,744, and with ancillary fees, they pay $8,544.
And that doesn't include other expenses, such as residence, a meal plan and textbooks.
The student aid changes are part of a surprise budget announcement last week by the Wynne Liberal government.
The government said more than 50 per cent of students from families with incomes of $83,000 or less will receive non-repayable grants that will exceed average college or university tuition.
Ontario is also increasing access to interest-free and low-cost loans for middle and upper-income families.
To pay for the Ontario Student Grant, the government is cancelling a number of other education tax credits and grants.
But the province promised all students will be the same or better off as under the 30% Off Ontario Tuition Grant, introduced in 2012.
That grant has been criticized for largely excluding mature students, as it's available only to college and university students who moved to post-secondary education from high school within four years of graduating.
The 30% Off Ontario Tuition Grant is also available to students who come from households making less than $160,000 a year.
The revamped system is “a lot more accessible and easy to understand,” Humphrey said.
“I think having students be able to access the funds when they need them really is a lot better than them having to wait until they'd be eligible for tax credits.”
The student aid changes also got a thumbs-up from Rhaili Champaigne, president of the Students Administrative Council, Cambrian College's student association.
“Knowing that students are going to leave with less debt or debt free is a really big deal,” Champaigne said. “Our students are now going to be overall walking away in a better standing, and not having as much financial stress on them.”
Cambrian has many mature students who were not eligible for the 30-per-cent off grant that now have access to the new grant, she said.
Gabrielle Ross-Marquette, national executive representative of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, said her organization is “celebrating” the changes.
“We do believe it's a victory for students who have been working for many, many years and have been fighting for more upfront needs-based grants,” she said.
“We've been advocating for years that programs such as the 30% off tuition grants or the tuition tax credits did not benefit those who needed it the most.”
Ross-Marquette said she is disappointed the changes won't come into effect until the 2017-18 school year.
“We would really love for students to be able to access this grant as soon as possible,” she said. “However, it's a good step in the right direction.”