Costly lessons

Free meals, food banks, bar­gains help­ing stu­dents find ways to sur­vive the high price of higher ed­u­ca­tion

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FINANCE - BY JAMES RISDON jl­ris­don@gmail.com

In fourth-year univer­sity stu­dent Sam Nixon’s fridge, there is a bit of pizza. Sure, it’s cold, a left­over from an event at Aca­dia Univer­sity in Wolfville, Nova Sco­tia.

But, hey, it’s also free. Pro­fes­sors paid for it. And it’s loaded with pep­per­oni and veg­gies.

A hand­ful of stu­dents were only too ea­ger to grab the left­over slices after the event and take them home. Nixon, the Aca­dia Stu­dents’ Union aca­demic and ex­ter­nal vice-pres­i­dent, was one of them.

That pizza ended up feed­ing her and a cou­ple of friends.

“Free food is a huge drive to get stu­dents out be­cause it's free and we don't have to take time to cook,” Nixon says.

No time to cook. And, in many cases, very tight bud­gets.

Tris­tan Bray, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the roughly 20,000-mem­ber strong Stu­dents Nova Sco­tia, says univer­sity stu­dents in Canada live on an av­er­age bud­get of about $16,500 for the school year. For an un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dent, tu­ition in Nova Sco­tia is the most ex­pen­sive in At­lantic Canada with an av­er­age cost of about $7,083 per year. An af­ford­able rent for a stu­dent in the Hal­i­fax Re­gional Mu­nic­i­pal­ity is con­sid­ered to be about $500 per month, or roughly $4,000 for the school year.

New­found­land and Labrador’s tu­ition, by com­par­i­son, is a bar­gain with an av­er­age tu­ition of just un­der $2,614, ac­cord­ing to Statis­tics Canada fig­ures. Go­ing to univer­sity on Prince Ed­ward Is­land comes with an av­er­age tu­ition of $6,030 and New Brunswick's tu­ition av­er­age s about $6,916.

Nova Sco­tia’s high tu­ition fees mean that stu­dents study­ing in that province are typ­i­cally look­ing at only $5,500, or about $150 per week, for ev­ery­thing else, in­clud­ing books, univer­sity fees, cloth­ing, heat­ing and tele­phone ser­vices, and, of course, their so­cial life.

Not ev­ery­one can do it.

“I have friends that skimp on their gro­ceries … or read the crappy PDFs of text­books on­line rather than buy the books,” said Nixon.

Saint Mary’s Univer­sity as­sis­tant regis­trar of stu­dent fi­nances, Marla Dou­glas, says many stu­dents re­sort to us­ing the univer­sity’s food bank, the Com­mu­nity Food Room, stocked in part with the help of alumni food drives. It’s open four days a week and is filled with canned goods, tuna and eggs, fresh veg­gies and other sta­ples.

Strug­gling with fi­nances is all­too-com­mon for univer­sity stu­dents. Many of them do need to use cam­pus food banks, now a fea­ture of many uni­ver­si­ties. Memo­rial Univer­sity and the Univer­sity of Prince Ed­ward Is­land both have sim­i­lar food banks. The Univer­sity of New Brunswick doesn’t but pro­vides stu­dents with Sobeys gift cards that can be used for gas, food or med­i­ca­tion.

There is also other help avail­able to stu­dents, in­clud­ing pro­grams to give them money-man­age­ment skills early in life.

“For a lot of stu­dents, when they get here, it’s their first time man­ag­ing their money,” said Dou­glas.

On its web­site, Saint Mary’s Univer­sity of­fers 13 bud­get­ing tips. Other uni­ver­si­ties in At­lantic Canada of­fer up sim­i­lar ad­vice through their fi­nan­cial ser­vices de­part­ments.

Most of the tips are about keep­ing track of the lit­tle money stu­dents do have. Buy used text­books in­stead of new ones. Opt out of ad­di­tional health and den­tal cov­er­age. Use Skype in­stead of cell phones for in­ter­na­tional calls. Walk, bike or use public tran­sit to get around in­stead of a car. Use credit cards spar­ingly. Pick up stuff that’s on sale. And keep track of spend­ing with an Ex­cel spread­sheet or use a bud­get cal­cu­la­tor on bank web­sites.

"You’ll likely be spend­ing money on fun, but some­times it’s good to say no,” the univer­sity ad­vises stu­dents. “Choos­ing which ac­tiv­i­ties to go to will not only help you save money, but pos­si­bly your aca­demic grades.”

Liv­ing in the fam­ily home while go­ing to univer­sity – when that’s pos­si­ble – is also a big way for univer­sity stu­dents to curb ex­penses, sav­ing tens of thou­sands of dol­lars over the course of a four-year de­gree. In 2009, Nova Sco­tians who lived at home while get­ting that ed­u­ca­tion saved more than $25,000.

Grants, bur­saries and schol­ar­ships are the moth­er­lode, a cash cow, for univer­sity stu­dents and well worth the lit­tle bit of time needed to ap­ply for them.

“If your ap­pli­ca­tion is suc­cess­ful, the big ben­e­fit is it's money that you won’t have to pay back,” Saint Mary’s Univer­sity tells stu­dents on its web­site. “Keep in mind that many post­sec­ondary in­sti­tu­tions of­fer au­to­matic schol­ar­ships for main­tain­ing your grades at a cer­tain level. Gen­er­ally, the higher your grades, the more money you re­ceive.”

Get­ting a part-time job, though, is still crit­i­cally im­por­tant for many stu­dents. Nixon opted to move to Wolfville from Dart­mouth to study at Aca­dia Univer­sity and doesn't qual­ify for provin­cial stu­dent loans be­cause of her par­ents' in­come.

They cover her gro­ceries and pro­vide much-ap­pre­ci­ated care pack­ages and the oc­ca­sional lasagna or other meal she can take back to school dur­ing vis­its back home. Part-time jobs, in­clud­ing three years of work­ing for a ca­ter­ing com­pany and now as an ex­ec­u­tive for the stu­dent coun­cil, cover the rest of her ex­penses.

It’s a trade-off: ex­chang­ing time that could be spent study­ing – or sleep­ing - for money. Nixon puts in 15 hours per week at her job.

“That takes up a ridicu­lous amount of my time,” she said. “I’m dead tired.”

Al­though the univer­sity stu­dent would like to sleep eight or nine hours ev­ery night, she gets by on just a bit more than six.

At Saint Mary’s Univer­sity, the stu­dent fi­nances depart­ment cau­tions stu­dents against tak­ing out more in loans than they need to avoid a mas­sive debt by grad­u­a­tion. Many stu­dents, though, see those loans as a ne­ces­sity to pay for that ed­u­ca­tion.

After all, Nova Sco­tia has the sec­ond-high­est tu­ition of all Cana­dian provinces. Ear­lier this year, the provin­cial gov­ern­ment loos­ened up the purse strings to give stu­dents in that province more ac­cess cash.

In its lat­est bud­get, Nova Sco­tia upped its con­tri­bu­tion to fi­nan­cial aid for univer­sity stu­dents by about $500 for those in the low­est in­come bracket and gave all stu­dents an ex­tra year to start pay­ing back their loans. Those stu­dents most in need can also get their Nova Sco­tia provin­cial stu­dent loans for­given when they grad­u­ate, mean­ing they don’t have to pay them back.

None of that, though, will help Nixon and other stu­dents like her.

With­out the stu­dent loan op­tion, she has turned to a bank. In­stead of get­ting an in­ter­est-free loan from the province, Nixon is fac­ing an in­ter­est rate of 4.2 per cent and a to­tal stu­dent loan debt of about $40,000 by the time she grad­u­ates in May.

Univer­sity stu­dent as­so­ci­a­tions fig­ure gov­ern­ments should be do­ing more to help them get an ed­u­ca­tion.

In On­tario, the provin­cial gov­ern­ment has wiped out a tax credit for univer­sity stu­dents, which it claimed would save $145 mil­lion this year, and in­stead started giv­ing them aid money up front for fam­i­lies earn­ing less than $50,000 per year. Up to a third of On­tario’s univer­sity stu­dents are now get­ting free tu­ition – and some of them re­ceive more money than they pay in tu­ition – un­der this pro­gram which in­cludes ma­ture stu­dents.

New Brunswick an­nounced a sim­i­lar pro­gram ear­lier this year. Un­der that pro­gram, a stu­dent who comes from a fam­ily of three earn­ing $61,000 or less would be el­i­gi­ble for $3,614. Add in fed­eral fi­nan­cial aid and al­most the en­tire cost of tu­ition for that stu­dent would be cov­ered.

At Stu­dents Nova Sco­tia, Bray wants Nova Sco­tia to fol­low suit.

“Pro­vid­ing that grant up front will al­low stu­dents who could not af­ford to go to univer­sity with an op­por­tu­nity to do so,” he said. “You could im­pact the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents in Nova Sco­tia who ap­ply for a stu­dent loan.”

With its changes in fi­nan­cial aid for stu­dents, On­tario saw a re­ported 10-per-cent spike in ap­pli­ca­tions for aid this year, sug­gest­ing the more gen­er­ous of­fer­ings might be help­ing the province re­tain univer­sity stu­dents.

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