Being a low-income student at the University of Toronto does not come with a ‘how-to guide’ on the pitfalls of an undergraduate degree. For myself, I struggled to grasp the weight of tuition and the caveats of living in residence. My mother had encouraged me to take up residence so that I could make friends and find community, irrespective of the inevitable financial burden it would incur.
For many, student debt is an unavoidable consequence of our efforts to achieve a degree. For low-income students, it is a fear that weighs over us when we evaluate how many books we can afford in any given syllabus, which leads to a significantly inequitable learning environment in which some students have access to information that others don’t by virtue of their financial position.
It’s a reality that we cannot afford to take our time during our undergraduate degree, as every additional course or year can add thousands of dollars to the finish line. While we walk across the stage at Convocation Hall to grab our degree, we do so with the ball and chain of financial burden attached to us.
When I first came to the University of Toronto, I was encouraged by friends and family to look for scholarships and bursaries. “There’s a bursary for that,” they would say. “There’s a scholarship for that,” they would tell me. The pressure of having to maintain grades just to achieve financial aid is one that many of my peers did not have to suffer through; every test mark did more than affect GPA, it was my permission slip to stay at this university.
I have been here for five years now, and for a good majority of my tenure I have navigated through a cumbersome and, in my experience, frequently ‘under construction’ scholarship and bursary page with little to no guidance for first-time viewers. Of course, many of these scholarships consider such a restrictive pool of applicants that they are not beneficial to the majority of low-income students who need them.
The donors of these scholarships seem to prioritize their own legacies rather than students who actually depend on this support. Additionally, while the majority of scholarships offered by postsecondary institutions are claimed, many others are untouched, seeing students lose millions of dollars a year. Whether this is because they are not well-advertised, or the system is too cumbersome, I can’t say, but clearly there is something wrong.
I would suggest that donors and the university stop searching for carbon copies of past students and instead focus on how they can support students who are currently struggling to achieve success at our university.
The University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) reformed its student aid apparatus this year, after consultations with low-income students just like me. We are working to expand our bursaries and grants to include the Book and Academic Supplies Bursary, Exam Deferral Bursary, Accessibility Bursary, Academic Pursuits Grant, Health and Wellness Bursary, Transit Bursary, and Emergency Bursary. These reforms now reflect the reality of what students need help with — transit, textbooks, unexpected expenses, and more.
Over the 2017–2018 and 2018–2019 years combined, the UTSU allocated just over $10,000 in student aid. Now, after the program was reformed in October, we have allocated over $20,000 in just four months. This is an incredible achievement, and I am proud to be part of a UTSU that made this a reality.
But the truth is that a student union cannot support every low-income student. Many students don’t even know about the program and what it can offer, and we cannot provide scholarships to pay for tuition. The financial landscape for low-income students has been ever-changing, especially taking into account the Ford government’s changes to the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and the inaccessibility of financial aid at U of T. The solution is quite simple: listen to us and our experiences and let it inform your student aid apparatus. To the donors who contribute to the education of future leaders, continue to do that, but understand that a lot of us are carving our own ways that may deviate from the path you charted, and that’s okay. U of T is a community of communities, and we succeed when we remember that.
Joshua Bowman is a fifth-year Indigenous Studies and Political Science student at St. Michael’s College and current President of the UTSU.