Student politicians should stop crying wolf

Can we really blame hunger and depression on tuition?


Tania Liu/Flickr

What does a slight rise in antidepressant use at the University of Ottawa have in common with a jump in students using the campus food bank?

The answer is rising tuition, say student activists.

“I think financial stress is a big reason for students relying on antidepressants a little bit more over the last few years,” Ann-Marie Roy, vice-president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa, told CBC last week when asked about growing antidepressant prescriptions on campus.

“We don’t think that people should have to choose between paying tuition fees and eating,” Chris Hynes, director of the SFUO food bank, told CBC a few days later when asked to explain a 10-fold increase in campus food bank customers since 2007.

Tuition is indeed rising in Ontario. Undergraduates here pay the highest average fees in Canada at $7,180 and growing five per cent annually. But do fees really explain depression and hunger?

I’m not so sure. Although there has been a 10-fold increase in food bank use at the University of Ottawa since 2007, that food bank has only been open since 2007. New services tend to take a few years to get up to speed. The increase there may simply be the result of better advertising.

Speaking of better advertising, there’s a bigger focus on mental health on campuses than ever before. I’d bet that the rise in prescriptions is at least partly explained by more people seeking help.

The best available statistics don’t support the theory that rising tuition causes depression. Each year, the National College Health Assessment asks tens of thousands of North American students about their health. In the fall of 2000, 43.7 per cent of them said that in the previous year they felt “so depressed it was difficult to function.” In the fall of 2011, that number had dropped to 30.3 per cent. Another NCHA metric also suggests depression isn’t rising. In 2000, 10.1 per cent of students said they were diagnosed or treated for depression. In 2010,  that too was down, to 8.3 per cent.

Meanwhile, tuition at public colleges in the United States increased between 2000 and 2011 by 45 per cent. If depression is linked to tuition increases, wouldn’t we see that borne out here?

Student activists would be well-served to remember the boy who cried wolf before they cry “tuition” for every problem. When students are told, without much evidence, that rising fees are to blame for everything from depression to hunger, they might stop listening altogether.

Agree? Disagree? Tell us in the comments section, on Facebook or on Twitter.


Student politicians should stop crying wolf

  1. That’s absolute nonsense. I am a TA at York University. I get paid about 10, 000 a year for something they would pay a professor 60, 000 dollars for. I also have to pay over half of that to my tuition fees. I do about 10-12 hours of work a day.

    When Mcguinty was in Law School is took 4-6 weeks of minimum wage work to pay for tuition…it now takes 54-56 weeks (viz., more than a whole year of work).

    I’m sure it’s easy to dismiss rising tuition fees when you write for McLean’s, and when your mommy and daddy pay your tuition, and when you’ve got the leisure to be concerned about viral videos (rather than important issues), but, I hate to be the one to inform you, not everyone lives as comfortably as you do.

    • Give me a break. I went to university for 7 years with barely a dime of financial support from my parents. I’m 4 years out and have all my loans paid off. It can be done.

    • You have made a fair comparison by comparing “minimum wage” to present costs. I admire that.

      In 1960, BC minimum wage was about $2.00 – for that, I could by 25 litres of gas, or a burger, fries, and shake, or go to a movie and buy snacks (2 films, news, cartoon, previews, and serial).

      For $5.00, my girlfriend (now wife) and I would take the bus down to Granville Street, go to a theatre, see the films, etc., go to a restaurant and have a small dinner, and take the bus home.

      UBC tuition: about $400.00, Books: about $100. Over the four-month break, I could earn about $350.00/mo. or $1400.00 – more than enough. Financial stress was nil (I was living at home in Vancouver) so I could concentrate on my studies as I did not need a winter job. I do admit, that out-of-town students (there was only UBC and UVIC, at the time, with SFU opening up sometime on the 60’s) had to pay more for dorms and food – but I don’t know how much. I did contribute to my parents’ grocery bill.

      Today, it’s different and more stressful ballgame. I don’t know how well, I’d do, as a student, today.

    • Correlation is not causation. This used to be understood by the non-science public too but not anymore, thanks to a media spreading their own scientific illiteracy. Your anecdotal personal evidence and opinion do not refute the evidence the author gave about self-declared depression dropping over the same time period that tuition rates rose in the USA. Has it ever occurred to you that your personal experience aside, there may be students who have discovered that using the food bank leaves them more discretionary income to spend on optional stuff like entertainment? Without means testing, we don’t know one way or another so why get so huffy as though you have the definitive answer when you most certainly do not, merely your own opinion that correlation MUST mean causation and your own experience can be extrapolated to a wider population. It cannot.

    • Don’t know where your stats came from but I’m 64 years old and it took more than 4-6 weeks for me. Course I didn’t hsve to pay for a cell plsn or…..

  2. Granted, the claim is lacking some internal validity, but human existence is not as simple as linear cause and effect. It is more of a interconnected web of influences – some silk strands will have more weight than others. And shocker, money is a doozy. It’s breadth and volatile state would cause anybody, not just students, depression. (Higher) Education should not just be for the elite. It is not SIMPLY the rising cost of tuition. It IS, however, the increasing commodification of education (higher cost, lower quality), the minimum wage that does not increase with inflation, rising costs of living and transportation, rising costs of health insurance and many more reasons that 20-somethings and increasing numbers of 30-somethings live with their parents. If my occupation is a student… and truly, even if the economy allowed me to make a decent living, it takes certain skills to be successful in both without some sacrifice. Yes, depression and anxiety can just be it (I say anxiety because in many cases, people with anxiety are treated with antidepressants). Also, what is this telling us about our society? Albeit, higher education is fairly elusive in some circles, but the better thinkers, (can I even venture off to say elite thinkers?) are relying on food banks! Education’s purpose is not to make its “clients” (see commodification) under its thumb. We have to ask ourselves, are our politicians/policies doing what it set out to do? Is education a right or a privilege for the rich? As such, do we want education to produce social reform, or maintain the current status quo? Why is public education fully funded only up until a citizen reaches 18? Are we truly convinced education ends at 18? I agree with Dehaas… to a tiny degree, I just think more perspectives and scope should have been considered in the writing of this paper. We should be just as critical as Dehaas when he came down on the VP of the Student Federation of University of Ottawa, if not, even more critical, perhaps by 1,000 fold.