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Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals put forward their new budget, which includes a number of provisions for low-income and middle-class students. Photo: CC, Jorge-Royan

New Liberal budget promises to make financing post-secondary education easier

The Ontario provincial government unveiled their new budget on Feb. 25, and it spelled out some good news for students.

One of the main features of the budget is the Ontario Student Grant, which looks to improve the process of financing students from different income brackets. According to the budget, the change will ensure students from families making $50,000 or less don’t have to pay tuition and won’t have any provincial debt, while also making tuition more affordable for middle-class families.

“The Ontario Student Grant is a really exciting step toward a more affordable and accessible system of getting an education,” said Rajean Hoilett, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students Ontario. “It’s a progressive step that students have been calling for.”

According to the budget, no Ontario student will receive less than they are currently eligible for through the 30 per cent Off Ontario Tuition grant once the new system is implemented, while more than 50 per cent of students from  families with incomes of $83,000 or less will have non-repayable grants in excess of average tuition.

As college tuition is lower than university tuition, college students will see the largest decrease in tuition, but Ross Finnie, associate professor in the Graduate School of International Affairs at the University of Ottawa said the program will be a boon for students choosing either option.

The new system will not give out more money in grants than before, but it will centralize them and make the process more organized. According to Finnie, that could make a significant difference for low-income students. “It looks like it will simplify the whole financial aid system.”

Finnie said that the system is currently a “mish-mash” of different programs, where students have to apply for different types of financial assistance. Some of the money is in the form of tax credits, which can be particularly confusing. “Probably half the students out there don’t even know these things exist,” he said.

The new grant will bundle all of them up, said Finnie, and give it to students in one grant up front.

“It’s combining a bunch of complicated and restrictive grants, and generally just making the process easier for students,” said Hoilett. “We look to this as the start of a conversation about the government’s role in providing more accessible and affordable post-secondary education.”

The next battleground, he said, will be the change in tuition rates. Under current rules, there is a three per cent cap on increases to undergraduate tuition fees, but that cap will expire in 2017.

“We hope that the government uses that opportunity to break down some of these financial barriers,” he said. “We hope to see a progressive move toward the elimination of tuition fees.”

Finnie said that it’s not easy to tell what effect the new system will have on the rate of post-secondary attendance. “I suspect it will have some positive effect,” he said, but added that there are other factors that influence people’s decision whether or not to attend post-secondary education.

He argued that more will have to be done to make people aware of the benefits of attaining a post-secondary education before we see a large spike in attendance numbers. “I think (the Ontario Student Grant) needs to be combined with other programs that help young people understand what the benefits are.”

Although there are more steps to take, Finnie said the new grant system is decidedly a good thing for students, and a positive step for the financial aid system. “This is the biggest change that there’s been in a really long time.”