Julien Balbontin/THE VARSITY

In April of last year, Stanford University expanded its financial aid program to waive tuition for students whose annual family incomes fall below $125,000. Further aid is avaiable to those whose annual family incomes falls below $65,000, which covers tuition, room, and board. 

A previous policy set the benchmark at $100,000 and allowed 77 per cent of undergraduates to finish their education without going into student debt. Students are expected to contribute at least $5000 a year through part-time work or savings. Still, the program is immensely beneficial for many students.

On the surface, it seems that U of T could implement a similar policy. Doing so would be beneficial, considering the additional costs that come with getting an education in a city like Toronto. The average Canadian student graduates with $28,000 of debt. Meanwhile, tuition has increased by 9.2 per cent for domestic arts and science students between 2012 and 2016, with fees expected to exceed $9,000 by 2018.

However, there are greater underlying problems in Ontario that prevent such measures from being implemented. 

U of T’s current model admits far more students than Stanford, and our tuition is, on average, significantly less than that of American universities. For 2014-2015, U of T saw a total of 14,382 students entering their first year, with 7,979 of them at UTSG. Considering that, in 2015, Stanford’s first-year undergraduate admit population was just over 2100, UTSG’s entry rate alone is almost four times as high. 

For a similar policy to be implemented at U of T, family income thresholds would have to be significantly lower, and undergraduate admission be made more stringent, in order to shrink the size of the undergraduate population.

U of T’s undergraduate to faculty ratio in 2013-2014 was 32:1, one of the highest in Canada. This situation would hardly improve if university had to redirect funds away from hiring staff in order to provide more financial aid to its student population.

Stanford has more resources to work with, offering financial aid through its $21 billion endowment fund. In contrast, excluding separate endowments of colleges, U of T’s endowment fund only just exceeds $2 billion. 

Finally, due to a lack of provincial funding, U of T relies heavily on tuition revenues to pay its employees and service its own debts.  Wanting to maximize revenue, U of T raises tuition as much as possible every year.

Some more practical changes, however, can improve the situation. First, expanded financial aid at U of T cannot be considered until problems present at the provincial level are addressed. For example, Ontario could increase the provincial funding it provides for students pursuing post-secondary education. 

U of T could also charge less interest on unpaid tuition fees. This would be useful for students receiving OSAP who are unable to pay their tuition up front, who receive their second instalment of financial aid significantly later than the university’s November deadline for tuition.

Finally, U of T could increase their tuition by less than the maximum amount per year, decreasing its revenue, but potentially improving the financial climate for its students. 

Solving the student debt crisis at U of T will require more than a Stanford-inspired model can provide. We should continue to push for alternative financial reform measures in order to ensure that students with financial barriers to education are still able to receive it.

Naomi Stuleanu is a second-year student at Victoria College studying criminology and psychology. 

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