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New crop of first-years on track to record debt at graduation

Ah, frosh week. A time for university students to let loose, find their bearings on campus, and hopefully plan a way to graduate in four years better off than how they started.

Rising student debt and less than encouraging job prospects make the idea of finishing postsecondary education feel like a dark cloud on the horizon. The average student graduating with debt owes $27,000, according to the National Graduates Survey.

It’s not surprising considering the results released on Wednesday from a recent poll conducted for the Canadian Federation of Students, which shows average undergrad tuition fees at more than $6,000 – a 3.2 per cent annual increase.

“What we have seen is a little bit more than half of students do graduate with debt. So 53 per cent is the data we have from 2010. So that’s something definitely that is a concern,” says Stephane Hamade, the University of Waterloo Federation of Students vice-president of education.

He says students at UW benefit from the cooperative education program. Students who go through the co-op program have three to four per cent higher employment rates, with higher salaries than their non-co-op counterparts.

But not every student has that option.

“We’re always working on making sure affordability of post-secondary education is an important issue,” Hamade said. “We do meet regularly with MPPs and MPs around student loan programs, OSAP, tuition and issues such as those to really make sure that students are going to be able to afford their education and aren’t going to have too much debt after they graduate. The real important key for us is students can access this education.”

The federation has been working with the Canadian Intern Association around internships, and with the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance on things like more integrated learning as well as tuition and student financial aid in general, he says.

“We’ve recently seen a few improvements to OSAP, that I think will hopefully help a little bit. The expectation around how much money you’re going to have made over a [summer] break has changed, as well as some things related to the expected parental contribution as well,” Hamade said.

He recognizes that there will always be students who have to take on debt to continue their education. They’re generally very careful with their money he says. His advice is to continue those good money management skills.

“The tuition levels in Ontario are the highest and that is something that we are ensuring that if there are increases, they are manageable. And if tuition does stay at the level it is, we keep on seeing improvements to the financial student aid system,” Hamade said.

National executive representative of the Canadian Federation of Students, Gabrielle Ross-Marquette, isn’t as optimistic about the struggles facing students in Ontario.

“We know the situation is pretty bleak right now,” Ross-Marquette said. “They’re graduating to a job market that has very little prospects for hopeful students and new graduates, a job market that is overrun with unpaid internships, that won’t help them pay off the substantial amounts of debt that they owe.”

She says it comes from the post-secondary education sector not being prioritized at a provincial or federal level. With a federal election happening next month, now is better than any to put those student concerns to good use.

“What students can do is talk about it because the more that people are aware that this is a situation, that this is a crisis, the more we can ask decision-makers to make change,” Ross-Marquette said. “And with the upcoming federal election it’s the perfect time to be talking about what candidates and what MPs can do for students, what the government can do for students, developing a plan for post-secondary education in the province, so that the fees are regulated.”

The Canadian Federation of Students is advocating for Ontario to adopt a similar model to Newfoundland, where they recently turned provincial loans into grants.

She advises students to get organized and talk to their student unions about lobbying the provincial government to turn provincial loans into grants, which would substantially reduce the amount of debt that students graduate with.

They’ve been on campuses this week talking to students about the importance of voting and helping them get registered with Elections Canada, so that when October 19 rolls around there’s a strong showing of students.

“I’ve had lots of students tell me the reason why they don’t vote is because nobody’s talking to them or talking about their issues. That’s why we’re trying to tell them that the more we talk about it, the more we’re present on social media, the more we’re present in traditional forms of medial the more they’ll listen to us,” Ross-Marquette said.”

She notes the Green party just announced by 2020 they want to eliminate tuition fees.

“That tells me we’re doing something right, as one of the parties has finally decided to talk about students,” Ross-Marquette said.

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