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

October 30, 2002

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

This is the third article in my series on post-secondary tuition. In previous articles I’ve discussed some of the issues faced by Alberta students and universities; including high tuition rates, student loan problems, and flawed government funding policies. These are issues that affect all of us, regardless of whether we live in Alberta or not. Athabasca University students need to be aware of what is occurring and be ready to speak up – to protect our rights of access to post-secondary education for ourselves and our children.

The University of Alberta and the University of Calgary are pushing for three main initiatives that will determine the direction of post secondary education: differential tuition, limited entrance for undergrads, and degree-granting status for community colleges. In this article I will discuss what differential tuition and entrance caps will mean for Alberta students.

Differential tuition rates are already common in the U.S. and in many Canadian universities as well. What does a differential tuition rate mean? It means that programs that are considered to have a higher employment rate and a higher wage upon graduation will be able to charge a significantly higher tuition. Programs that are generally targeted for higher differential tuition are law, medicine and dentistry. Most of us would agree that these professions do have the potential of a significantly higher income after graduation, and that students graduating from these faculties will be far more likely to recoup the amount spent on their education. But what happens when tuition is doubled or tripled for faculties training lawyers, doctors, and dentists?

It means that a rural family in Southern Alberta who dreams of sending their daughter or son off to become a doctor, must somehow come up with an amount equivalent to the mortgage on a small farm. It means that the average student entering university from a middle-class family is not going to be able to choose to become a doctor or a lawyer and will have to settle for some other career that is within their budget and perceived ability to repay. Rich families, the elite – will have no trouble educating their children in professions that will maintain the status quo. Middle class families and the poor who are struggling to better themselves will find themselves forever shut out of high-paying and prestigious professions.

Differential tuition is not going to stop at medicine and law. Universities are already eyeing certain business and engineering programs…virtually any program that has a higher than average expectation of earnings will soon be subject to paying correspondingly higher tuition. Some may think this is fair – but remember the rule of supply and demand. As these professions become more expensive, fewer students will be able to access them. As numbers of qualified professionals diminish, the wages they demand will escalate even higher, and the gap between rich and poor will become even more pronounced.

I recently met with the admissions officer of the MD program at U of A to find out just how the admissions procedure works. She advised me that acceptance into the program is all based on marks, but that they encourage applicants from every walk of life and every family situation. I asked how differential tuition would affect lower-income students. She replied that Med school students have no problem qualifying for student loans, since the government considers them a good risk, and again reinforced that top marks were the indicator that mattered. In the last year, the average GPA (grade point average) for students entering the University of Alberta MD program was 8.48 on the 9-point scale! (3) She insisted that any student willing to work hard enough could achieve such a goal. I disagree.

This is not just unique to the MD program. The University of Alberta has recently announced that it will be limiting entrance by raising academic entrance requirements across the board, and the University of Calgary is doing the same. While they insist that such a cap is necessary due to the inability of the universities to accommodate the increasing number of undergraduate students, many are of the opinion that raising entrance requirements is simply a way to achieve the goal of becoming high-quality institutions that draw only the top applicants. Harvey Weingarten, president of U of C, states that the days of students entering university with 65 or 70 percent averages are over. U of A president Rod Fraser denies that this will create an elite school (9).

I’m a huge proponent of academic excellence, and I believe that university should be a place that rewards high academic achievement. But I do not believe that high marks are necessarily an indicator of the best applicants to university, and I believe that raising the entrance GPA is another way of limiting post-secondary education to the wealthy. Why?

As noted in the last two articles on the tuition topic, students are working more hours to survive and pay the ever-increasing costs of tuition. This means less study time, and a corresponding drop in grades. It may be very easy for an intelligent student to get a top mark in a course when they have the luxury of focusing full time on that course. Who has this luxury? Only a student with well-to-do parents, tuition completely paid for, no worries about money. But for a student who is holding down a job, a student who is paying their own tuition through this job, a student who is on student loan receiving minimal funding, who is undernourished due to the artificially low student loan meal allowances, a student who may have family responsibilities – that 8.48 average is much harder to come by. Both students may be intelligent and willing to work hard, and both deserve admission into Med school. But likely only the former student will manage to “make the grade” – not because he/she is better qualified, but because he/she has greater economic advantages to begin with.

This elitist policy begins with high school. These universities are placing a greater emphasis on marks starting as far back as grade ten. Is this a true indicator of potential? How many high school students are high achievers? A few. How many not-so-high achieving high school students have gone on to become important contributors to our society? Quite a few. How many high school students don’t do well for a variety of reasons, yet blossom at university? Many. High school is not the same as post-secondary education, and many students who find themselves not doing well in high school suddenly find their focus when they enter university and go on to achieve academic excellence.

Even at high school level, a student’s financial situation plays an important role. My youngest daughter has worked since age 14, as a necessary contributor to the survival of our family. For the past two years she has gone straight from school to her job, often getting up at 6 AM on weekends as well. Homework is often squeezed in after 11 PM at night after arriving home from work, assignments finished well past midnight. She is already planning her university educational choices around what job she can hold while attending school, and calculating the maximum earnings she can obtain while still doing as well as possible in university. She is not working for fun. She is working because it is the reality of existence for a teenager in a single-parent family. Is she on a level playing field with her friend – whose parents are both lawyers, who has no need to work outside the home and who excels at high school because she has no work-related study distractions? I don’t think so. My daughter wants to become a doctor. She has the necessary qualifications of intelligence and drive – but financial realities will be the more important determinant of her choices.

We all should be speaking out against differential tuition – unless we want our doctors, lawyers, and engineers to continue to be only populated by the rich and elite among us.

Next week, I will conclude my discussion on the topic of post-secondary tuition.

(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

(9) Edmonton Journal:
“U of A will slow growth to maintain high quality.” October 5, 2002.
“U of A Vision needs debate” October 8, 2002.
“No apologies for seeking best students, faculty” October 9, 2002
“U of A’s vision is to work hard to be the best” October 11, 2002
“Tread with care on universities” October 22, 2002
“Research push cannibalizes other budgets” October 23, 2002
“Just the cream for the university” October 27, 2002

Debbie is a native Edmontonian, and 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.