From My Perspective – Post-Secondary Tuition (Part One)

October 16, 2002

From My Perspective – Post-Secondary Tuition (Part One)

On-campus students are always making public statements to protest rising tuition costs. In fact many people may even start to tune these protests out, since they seem to go hand in hand with attendance at a post secondary institution in an almost predictable pattern – the school year starts & students complain about tuition! As distance education students at AU, we may feel somewhat detached from the tuition debate. We are directly affected, of course, when tuition rises, but for students taking only one course at a time, we may not notice the effects immediately. On a single course, a 4% increase may not seem excessive, since it amounts to only a few extra dollars. In the 2000/2001 academic year, base tuition at AU was $341, with course materials and fees bringing the total to $476. This year base tuition rose to $355 (the maximum allowable under current government tuition policy), bringing the total per course to $496 when course materials and fees are included. A $20 per course increase may not seem excessive, but for those of us attending full time, this adds $200 to a full year semester load of ten courses – a yearly tuition of $4960. (8)

AU students pay less tuition than campus-based students, and we have the added advantage of textbooks being included in our total tuition cost. At the University of Alberta, 2002/2003 tuition and course fees for most Arts/Sciences are about $4490 for the year, not including the cost of textbooks (which can run $100 or more per course). There are additional costs for certain faculties as well. Engineering tuition is $4800, Medicine $6133 and Dentistry $15,733! (3) The University of Calgary tuition is almost identical to that of the University of Alberta. (4)

However, tuition increases and the on-campus protests are something we should not ignore, since we are all ultimately affected. There are a number of things occurring within the post secondary education environment, changes that will have a huge impact on students, parents, university staff, and the general public. During the next few months a variety of campaigns will be initiated by the Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS) in which tuition and funding issues will be brought into the public forum in Alberta. More information will continue to be available through the Voice and the AUSU website, and I urge you to keep a close watch on this issue and add your voice to the protest.

Why should we at AU be concerned about tuition increases and the issues that will be brought to the public? Because rising tuition rates are reducing the availability of post secondary education for ourselves and our children, and the situation is getting dramatically worse. According to CAUS, “between 1990/91 and 2000/01, tuition fees in Alberta have increased by 208%, the most rapid rate of increase of all Canadian provinces,” giving Alberta the third highest tuition in Canada. (1) Across Canada the situation is no better. The Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) notes that tuition levels in Canada rose 135% over the past decade. (5) Some provinces are experiencing yearly tuition rises of 10% or more. In British Columbia a seven-year tuition freeze was just lifted, resulting in a 2002/2003 tuition increase of a staggering 25.2%! (6)

These tuition increases are rising far more rapidly than the rate of inflation. I recently spoke with my doctor about tuition for med school, and he made the comment that when he entered the U of A back in the 1960’s, he paid $460 a year in tuition. I recall minimum wage being in the vicinity of $1.50 an hour back then. In the years since that time, minimum wage in Alberta has increased about 4 times that amount, to $5.90 an hour…yet tuition has risen more than 10 times the 1960’s rate to the point where a single course now costs more than a year’s tuition did in the 1960’s!

Students are coping by taking on increased debt, whether by student loan or credit card, and by working more hours during the school term. About one-third of students work from 10-18 hours a week, and many are taking longer to graduate as a result. Families are expected to help their children with tuition expenses, but this creates significant barriers for students whose families are unwilling or unable to put money towards tuition. There are a small number of families in the upper income bracket who have no difficulty paying outright for their children’s education. For the majority of middle-income earners, this is a virtual impossibility. In Alberta, for example, a family making $50,000 a year with two university-aged children is expected to contribute almost $4,700 per child. This would mean a total of $9,600 – close to one-fifth of their disposable income – is going towards tuition. Because these parental contributions are “expected,” children in this family would not qualify for a student loan. (7) Where families own a business or farm, assessment is based on the value of the farm or business. In rural Alberta, the implication is that farmers are expected to sell their farm equipment if they want their children to attend university! Many young people are moving away from home simply so they can qualify for a student loan – creating an even more onerous financial situation for themselves.

In real terms, this means that many middle-class families simply cannot afford to send their children to university. For lower-income families, qualifying for student loans is much easier. However these families are already in difficult financial straits, working at low wages just to survive – to even consider adding another huge financial burden through a student loan creates an almost impossible mental and social barrier to even considering post-secondary education.

In the 1960’s a high school education was sufficient to guarantee a fairly secure, well-paying job. Now we live in a society where post-secondary education has become a basic requirement for any job paying more than minimum wage. Yet this basic requirement is becoming further and further out of reach of those who need it the most, and the gap between rich and poor is widening substantially in Canada – country of opportunity!

But the tuition picture is becoming even more bleak. In the next two weeks I will look at student loans, differential tuition, and some initiatives Alberta universities are undertaking that will have an even greater impact on the gap between those who can access post secondary education and those who are completely shut out.

For further information:

(1) Council of Alberta University Students (CAUS):

(2) University of Alberta Students’ Union

(3) University of Alberta Tuition:

(4) Students’ Union, University of Calgary:

(5) Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA):

(6) Statistics Canada, University Tuition Fees:

(7) Student Finance Board, Alberta Government:

(8) Athabasca University

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union.