Ontario's 'free tuition' promise doesn't add up

Ontario’s ‘free tuition’ promise doesn’t add up

Provincial government claims average university tuition in Ontario costs $6,160. Statistics Canada says it’s $7,868.

Minister of Finance Charles Sousa (right) shows off the budget to the Opposition benches as Premier Kathleen Wynne looks over the aisle. The Ontario Liberals table the budget in the Legislature. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Minister of Finance Charles Sousa (right) shows off the budget to the Opposition benches as Premier Kathleen Wynne looks over the aisle. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Yesterday the Ontario government claimed that most students from families making under $50,000 will be able to attend college or university for free in 2017. So far the response has been overwhelmingly positive, with university administrators, faculty associations and student groups all welcoming the changes.

There’s just one problem: the numbers don’t add up.

The government’s math is based on the idea that average undergraduate university tuition costs $6,160. According to Statistics Canada, average undergraduate tuition in Ontario is currently $7,868. That leaves a $1,700 gap without even counting the tuition increase of roughly four per cent scheduled for 2017.

It’s the same story for colleges. Ontario’s math requires college tuition to be $2,768. According to Colleges Ontario, while average tuition is $2,400 for diploma programs, it’s $3,600 for graduate certificate programs, $5,000 for collaborative programs and $6,100 for bachelor’s programs.

Minister for Training Colleges and Universities Reza Moridi has an explanation for the discrepancy: Ontario doesn’t count more expensive programs when determining its average. For colleges the government only counts diploma programs. For universities the government only counts tuition fees in arts and science programs, leaving out the more costly tuition fees in professional programs such as engineering.

“Engineering students have to pay a little more. Arts and science students, it will be completely free for them,” says Moridi. Moridi defended the use of the lower figures by saying: “They have to use a figure, so that’s the figure they have been using in the ministry.”

Moridi argues the underlying goal—to get more low-income students to graduate from post-secondary institutions—is noble. As he put it: “This is a major milestone. Yesterday was the best day in my life as a politician.”

In 2012, the provincial Liberals promised a 30-per-cent reduction in tuition. After an initial flurry of positive media coverage, the Liberals came under fire for eliminating grants that helped vulnerable students instead of allocating new money to pay for the 30-per-cent reduction. Similarly, Moridi explains that this program will be paid for by consolidating existing student aid programs.

This time, though, student groups are welcoming the changes. Raejan Hoilett, chair of the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, is pleased that the government is consolidating the many current student aid programs into one. “Having one application will really simplify things and reduce one more barrier for students from a low socio-economic background who are already facing so many struggles,” says Hoilett.

Hoilett’s concerns are about the fine print: “Undergraduate students actually paid $7,868 last year and graduate students paid $8,971. This is an amazing step forward and it will help a lot of students in need but $6,160 is not the real cost of education.”

Hoilett argues that for low-income students, a $1,700 gap can make a huge difference. He also thinks that solely counting tuition fees doesn’t reflect the real cost to students.

“None of these estimates include mandatory student fees, which are often over $1,000,” says Hoilett. For example, students at Guelph University paid $1,163.59 in mandatory fees this year. It’s a similar story for college students, who can expect to pay about $800 in mandatory fees.

Spencer Nestico-Semianiw, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, shares similar concerns: “Overall, I think these changes are worth celebrating, but the way they count tuition and the way they don’t include student fees creates this impression that there won’t be any cost to low income families, and that’s not true.”


Ontario’s ‘free tuition’ promise doesn’t add up

  1. I just don’t understand this. Is there really an epidemic of young people not being able to attend post secondary education? The market appears to be flooded with recent grades that can’t find work at all, let alone in their studied field.

    • This is the usual generalized nonsense and bad math. First the program selection criteria is not tightly coupled to employment markets; second, many academics are antithetical to the very concept; third, intellectual interest is never entirely job focused. Consequently, the distribution of post-secondary graduates and the distribution of employment opportunities never have a 1:1 match – why would you rationally expect otherwise? One corollary is that some graduates may not fit to employment opportunities; the mathematical compliment is that some employment opportunities are under-supplied. In any case, what one gets when one attempts to match a resource to a requirement is frequent blackouts – surplus is beneficial. If the market is so ‘flooded’, explain the dearth of rural doctors. Back in the day I was the only guy on the job who could build forms for concrete stairs … it’s just math … and only one guy in an entire company (not me) was a college trained apprentice; emphasis on quantity not quality is not a good way to build an economy.

      • You state that my post is generalized nonsense and then follow it up with exactly that. The only way that this makes sense is if it allows takers to transition to makers, and if this is not going to lead to people getting better paying jobs then it is nothing more than a distraction in an otherwise ugly budget. If this is being enacted because access to post secondary education is too limited and this will rectify the problem then let’s see your proof. I don’t care about your personal anecdotal evidence because it proves nothing. Want to go to university? Get a summer job. Get a student loan. This doesn’t require further government intervention.

    • The issue is which students are attending post-secondary institutions. With the prospect of $50K+ of debt at graduation, many low-income students who have the potential to do well don’t go to college or university. This is to level the playing field.

      • How does this level the playing field? If student’s household earns more than $50,000 and they go to university, this student is saddled with the excessive debt that you are talking about, while someone in a household earning less than $50,000 skips through debt free. This is a level playing field to you? I don’t think that analogy means what you think it does.

        • 50% of kids from families with incomes up to $83,000 will also get the full tuition grant. Remember they are talking about taxable income, not gross income and 60% of all families that filed returns for 2014 had taxable incomes under $42,000. The gross income of someone with a partner and two kids and a taxable income of $50,000 would be somewhere around $78,000. A taxable income of $83,000 would correspond to a gross income over $100,000. In other words, this benefit will be available to the vast majority of Ontario students.
          When I say “level the playing field”, I do know what it means. Young people who, through the birth lottery, grew up in low-income families will be able to choose to go on to post-secondary education and, like their classmates from high income homes, will be able to come out at the end without having had to borrow $6,000 X 4 years = $24,000 in student loans. When you level the playing field, it gives everyone a fair chance at succeeding.
          Many students will still have to borrow to cover books, fees and other expenses but their total debt will be a lot lower. It would be possible for a student to cover a lot of the other expenses if they are able to get a summer job.

          • Except that everything you are arguing is not based on actual facts. Read Evan Solomon’s article her (http://www.macleans.ca/education/free-tuition-is-good-but-its-just-a-start/) which thoroughly debunks that the cost of tuition is a barrier to post secondary education. You are basing your beliefs on “feel good” emotions and nothing more. People like you are what’s wrong with this country because you ignore facts to serve your own moral self righteousness.

  2. There are A LOT of things that don’t add up. A relatively small one but insane is Drive Clean. While somewhat of a pain, I don’t think this was on anyone’s radar anymore. So, to keep this going without a fee paid by the car owner, the government will pay all those tests now and say the cost is $60 million paid for out of tax revenue. There are about 6.3 million people employed in Ontario over the age of 16. So that $60 million is close to $10/person per year or $30/person over 3 years-exactly what they would have paid for their Drive clean test. Smoke and mirrors

    • If you don’t measure it you can’t fix it nor can you maintain it. It even took some clever testing to reveal VW cheating. What’s the cost alternative? There were good reasons to regulate vehicle emissions and, given current environmental concerns, more reasons than ever before. Note that drive clean checks are set to a level which represents a relatively low cost measurement system rather than an ideal level of testing. Perhaps you could tally the costs of lifetime respiratory diseases – an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Even though fewer and fewer vehicles fail, some still do where this is setting a low standard and failing to achieve it.

  3. The post-secondary education system has to be disrupted by a new model, not subsidized.

    This is where it would be important to have first-mover advantage. Silicon Valley is going to disrupt higher the higher education bubble. It is only a matter of time.

  4. Free university tuition works well, and has worked well for many years, for European countries. By only contributing the basic amount of the tuition in Ontario forces those students who really want a university education in Ontario to get off their asses in the summertime, get a job and make it happen. All of my 3 children here in BC went through univeristy, got their degrees, without a single bit of debt, and without having to borrow money from their parents. It can be done.

    • I’m curious did your children live at home during this time?

      If so you do realize the HUGE financial advantage that this created for your children. Unfortunately many kids do not have the luxury of living with the folks while going to university or college. Having to pay room/board more than doubles the cost of getting an education.

      In Ontario a full time min. wage job might just pay for a newspaper roof and 3 meals a day of KD. This leaves the full cost of tuition to be payed off at a later date.

      Ontario, if I remember correctly, has the highest tuition rates in the country. I’m not sure what they are like in BC.

    • Given the outright stagnation of many Euro economies, it hardly seems wise to follow in their policy footsteps. Lots of equality there, but in most Euro countries, the overall standard of living isn’t any higher than ours, despite much higher social spending.

      I agree that there must be some “skin in the game” for the student. There are far too many career students who spend many years – what should be productive years – drifting through university. Simply “getting a degree” is meaningless and a futile pursuit. If one does not have the motivation or aptitude to pursue a particular professional program, university isn’t the place for them. Subsidizing these same people to go to university is a very costly misallocation of resources.

      • I don’t want to give away too much of their private life, but, no, none of our childred lived at home while attending university. The eldest got her degree in Calgary, and her masters in Washington State. The youngest got her physics degree at UBC and her Architecture degree there as well. The middle guy procrastinated, worked for 3 years and got his in biology from U of Vic. They come from a strong work-ethic parents who also worked their way through school while married. :)
        But I do have a number of nephews and nieces living in Germany who have taken advantage of the free university education there and have gone on to do well in their chosen fields. I’ve lived in England, and wouldn’t give their educational system the time of day because of the instilled class social structure which appears to have only gotten worse over the years. But, I don’t think they ever had a free university system there.

  5. Don’t add up??? When only in Ontario what about every other province. Is there something special about Ontario. This is not right. Free MSP and now free education whys that. I guess everyone else in the country should pay for this just not the taxpayer of Ontario. What’s next they don’t have to pay tax’s.

    • I don’t understand this comment. This is paid for out of provincial taxes.

      • I guess taxpayers in four other Provinces wonder why they will pay for tuition for their students and Ontario will receive transfer payments from the four Provinces and that will pay for Ontario students tuition.

    • What’s special is that this is the Ontario budget which is why it applies to Ontario students. If you want the same in your province, talk to your provincial government.

  6. It’s all how you do the math: many university programs have excess fees which are either buried in tuition or charged extra, the latter being a consequence of the provinces policy of setting caps on tuition. Neither of my university grad children had tuition as low as $8000 and substantially more when lab fees, materials charges, and membership fees were rolled in. Just the other day while housekeeping I came across two engineering texts that cost a total $1600. I did a comparison between a time when I earned my way through university and more recent times when my son blew out his lifetime earnings in first term. Our parental investment in post-secondary educations amounted to ~$160K and we’re cheap (I know parents who paid much more). The point is post secondary education is very expensive and a greater portion of costs than ever comes out of student fees. At least the government obliquely recognizes this and is doing something; as noted, it’s probably a bit short for any high-cost program, but it’s a good start. On the other hand, it should be noted that this is a budget approach i.e. it addresses only the most disadvantaged, perhaps not entirely, in a way that does not deal with the structural problems of post-secondary education funding. Sadly, some will even carp about this and so we boldly go into a world of knowledge based economies on the cheap.

    • Free university is well and good if the graduates stay in the country and become taxpayers and fund the next group of university students. If they are plucked up by another country, it is a poor investment for Canada. Google, Facebook and the like will be licking their chops at Waterloo just waiting to snap up the Ontario-funded graduates so they can put them to work in the US. Gosh, they probably won’t even have to pay them any moving incentives with the Canadian dollar in the tank. Meanwhile, let’s not forget what Lucien Bouchard reminded us of. All taxpayers, including waitresses pay the taxes that educate the university graduates that go on to become the one percenters of society. If those one percenters get a free ride and never pay taxes in Canada, we have really screwed those waitresses in our society.

      • I agree with you to a point. We are also taking the cream of the crop from many third world countries who should come here, get their education and then return to build their own countries. Instead we offer them a fast track to permanent residency once they’ve finished their studies. So we are the pot calling the kettle black when we complain about other countries poaching our grads.

        • I think you are a little naïve about what we are doing. We are getting paid big dollars by countries like Saudi Arabia to educate their doctors in short term residencies. That is how our universities are making big cash. Those doctors are staying for six weeks and Saudi pays something in the order of $100K per student. It means we can’t find residencies for our Canadian grads. Plus those people we are plucking from other countries are mostly from South Africa where it isn’t safe for them to live. Very few educated in third world countries can work in Canada with the education they got in their own country. We have to provide them with additional education on our tax dollars in order for them to be able to do the job here.

  7. As I predicted many times, free university is the next thing up…absolutely vital in the knowledge age.

    It’s free in many other countries, and should have been here long ago.

    • Well of course your prediction came true Ms. Wynne. You after all had the power to make it happen. Duh!

  8. I was reading the details to this in their budget plan. From a tax perspective: they will remove the provincial tuition and textbook tax credit amounts to pay for this. You’ll still be able to claim tuition paid, but you won’t get the additional $531/month (full time) in tax credit.
    So you’ll be losing out on $4,248 of provincial tax credits if this goes through. This equates to $637 less of a refund at tax time (potentially).

    • I read the budget documents too and I don’t think you’ll be able to claim the tuition paid on your taxes. I have no problem forgoing a tax refund which, for my daughter, was about $900 for a 12-month program if she came out at the end not having to pay $6,000 in tuition fees. That puts her $5,100 ahead of the previous set-up. She would still get the federal tax refund which would go a long way towards paying for books.

  9. free – what a lie – it is not free. hard working people who still have jobs in that sick province will pay this massive bill. don’t buy this “lie spin” folks…….

    • LOL, you are hilarious

  10. Ontario must have hit the motherlode to do this. Problem is mother there is LGBT? A lot of people will go to college to get useless degrees to spend years going to school as a living. If one has to pay ones own fees then the focus will be more pragmatic and the person will really want to be there, not as a free ride. Another mass herd human dream leading to the same pathos.

  11. How does it ‘not add up’? They have to pick a number to base the grant on and it makes sense to use the more reasonably priced programs. There will still be loan programs as well as federal student aid to help with the other costs of going to school so it’s not like this is the only source of funding.
    The bachelors degrees offered by colleges are the same cost and duration as those offered by universities and I expect the $6,000 tuition will be covered for both in the same way.
    The various grants and bursaries offered by the institutions that were used towards tuition will now be available to either provide support for books, student fees and living expenses or to help students who are not eligible for the tuition grant. That will reduce the debt load for a lot of students.

  12. If you know for a fact that you wish to pursue a particular professional designation, by all means, go to university. But NOBODY should ever go to university just to “get an education”. The post-secondary education system is a big, self-serving, self-propagating industry that is helping itself to an ever-larger share of the economy for no net benefit to society or the economy. As another commenter says, we need some new, disruptive force to replace this archaic system, or at very least provide an alternative path.

    Besides, not everyone is cut out to spend many years studying. Some of the most successful companies in the world were founded by drop-outs. On the other hand, look how the various Harvard, Princeton and Yale graduates brought the world economy to its knees in 2008. It wasn’t the Steve Jobs and Bill Gates of the world who caused that collapse. It was the MBAs and Ph D’s (many of them educated in hard sciences who had been lured by the big bucks offered by global investment banks to work as “quants” – look it up) from some of the world’s top universities who did that. Honourable mentions of course need to go to the equally over-educated “policy makers”, who think the economy is some sort of machine in need of their expert tuning. Yes, let’s send even more kids to university and feed into this system. It’s working out so well.

    • Mud baller, you are insane

      An education is exactly what YOU could use.

      • It is actually fabulous. Just think of all of the doctors and computer nerds your tax dollars will educate who will then leave your province to work in other places and never pay a cent of income tax in Ontario. Awesome idea.

        • Gage, why the hell would they move to the “boonies” when they could live in Ontario.

          • They don’t need to go to the boonies dumbass. Plenty of low tax jurisdictions in the US and elsewhere paying top dollar for top talent. Oh, most will stick around. But the best of the best – the ones who command the highest compensation – and the ones we’d dearly love to keep – will be long gone. High taxes have consequences.

          • Mud baller, this is an old CON piece of propaganda. We are not losing skilled people to the US, in fact many are coming here. I can’t believe a grown adult would be against “education” your IQ must be lower than your shoe size

          • California is the boonies? Since when? My friends son, a grad of Waterloo just got recruited to there by the company that bought Linked in and he is making US dollars. Good gawd, this magazine just had an article on Justin Trudeau’s foolish love affair with US companies like Google, Facebook, etc. that start up satellite offices here and poach our Canadian talent. Didn’t you read it you fool? The US has been poaching our doctors and nurses for years. Now Ms. Wynne, you are going to pay 100 percent to educate them. Well done.

          • Yes, the Napa Valley really is the boonies and living near the Golden gate bridge is pure torture. Who would pick that and pay in US dollars over Ontario?

  13. And the Ontario government adds itself to the list of the ever expanding post secondary bubble contributors. As student loan debt recently surpassed 1 Trillion in north america, we see yet another institution encouraging attendance, and therefore accruing costs, to send people to these institutions which often do nothing to further their economic prospects. The job market for standard arts or sciences undergraduate degrees is limited and looks nearly identical to the job market for candidates without any undergraduate degree. There is simply near zero demand for this type of education in the job market, yet our society deems it still a good idea to push this agenda on our youth. The cost of education exists, whether borne by the student or borne by the taxpayer, and continue to fuel this debt bubble. The solution, as always, is to allow the market to sort out the educational requirements of the population. If an individual is going to spend 20k on university, they will be sure to understand that they need to educate themselves in a field that is in demand i.e. engineering, medicine, accounting, or other professional endeavours. We do not need the state encouraging our youth to invest years of their lives (not to mention the opportunity costs) to obtain a degree that will only marginally better their situation. To regurgitate the ever relevant quote from Good Will Hunting “You dropped 150k on an education that you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library”.

    • Sean, this is bull shit, I’ve heard this nonsense for 50 years, the people getting pogie are not the people with degrees. They are the uneducated, like yourself. Why you want everyone to be in STEM and turn into robots is a mystery to me.

      Where would you get your writers, philosophers, TV shows, new ideas in the world, artists, teachers etc?

  14. Both Canada and the US have free college tuition programs………….. it’s called MILITARY SERVICE. Instead of being on “the take” all the time maybe some of these little sluffers should CONTRIBUTE something to our country. After working to put myself thru college and then working for decades in a high tax bracket (like millions of other Canadians) I am looking forward to finally benefitting from these efforts. I’m sure millions of Canadian seniors who have paid “full fare” all their lives are looking forward to the free tuition. I plan to complete graduate level designations …………… and I’m sure our oh-so-politically-correct government wouldn’t dare to exercise “ageism” in the application of this program…………. or would they????

    • Oh no. One wouldn’t want to make them promise to pay it back in service to the province. That would be to smart. This way they can get away with never pay a single cent of taxes in Ontario because they can work anywhere they want after they have taken the Ontario taxpayer’s tuition money.

  15. Another vote buying attempt by the Liberals that will, unforturnately, work. The dumbest people on the planet (see population of Ontario in the GTA and Ottawa area) will buy it hook line and sinker.