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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The painless path to paying your way

Attending university doesn’t have to leave you with a lifetime of debt - if you do your homework on what financial help is out there.

By John Qubti
Special to The Globe and Mail

Earlier this summer, thousands of high school students cheered as they received offers from universities - then took a deep breath as they figured out how much it would cost them.


During this double cohort year, with student stress (in Ontario at least) at an all-time high, finding money to pay for school is proving to be just one more worry. Aside from a university’s courses and facilities, one of the most important considerations for students making a decision about which school to attend is cost.


Average student debt among those who borrow and graduate from four-year programs is approximately $21,000, according to research by the Canadian Millennium Scholarship Fund.


To help students avoid mountains of debt, many schools are focusing on financial-assistance programs. Most offer scholarships, bursaries and awards while others have work-study programs, where a student can get a part-time job on campus to help pay the way.


According to the University Report Card, students rated Wilfrid Laurier, Carleton University, and Sherbrooke University as the best schools for financial-assistance programs. Students raved about Laurier because there are many scholarships and bursaries available and campus work is easy to find. “There are lots of scholarships available; you just have to be prepared to put in a bit of effort. The University area is filled with part-time jobs which are usually pretty flexible to the schedules of students,” said Michelle MacFarlane, a second-year kinesiology student at Wilfrid Laurier.


Carleton was praised for the number of merit and needs-based scholarships it offers, while Brock and Sherbrooke were recognized for their co-op programs.


Toronto area university students have a tough time acquiring financial assistance, according to the survey rankings. The University of Toronto ranked 35th among 38 universities, while its Mississauga campus ranked last at 38th. The most common complaint from students was the extremely high standards U of T sets.


“There needs to be more merit based scholarships, I have a 4.0 GPA and I have no idea if there's any awards I can apply to at my school,” said Jasmine Landau, a second-year international relations student at U of T Mississauga. Ms. Landau has also tried to find a job on campus but finds the parameters ridiculous. “They have a limit of how much you can make, I mean $2,000 is just not enough,” she said.


The latest Statistics Canada report on tuition fees for full-time undergraduates at Canadian universities found that the average tuition has jumped 7.4 per cent - the highest increase in four years. Average undergraduate tuition fees for 2003-04 remain highest in Nova Scotia at $5,557, followed by Ontario at $4,923. British Columbia had the largest increase in average undergrad fees, up 30.4 per cent to $4,140 - after a rise of 25.7 per cent last year. Students in Newfoundland saw average undergrad fees drop by 4.5 per cent to $2,606, following a 10 per cent drop during each of the previous two years.


However, fees will be frozen for the seventh straight year at $1,675 for residents of Quebec attending universities in the province, remaining the lowest level in the country. Students from other provinces attending universities in Quebec will have to pay $4,300 on average, up 2.9 per cent.


Tuition fees aren't the only expenses that come into play. Textbooks can run up to $1,000 a year and students in professional or second-entry programs often face thousands of dollars a year in supplies and equipment costs in addition to their tuition bill.


Students attending urban-based universities may have to pay more for rental accommodation after their first year in residence. For students who commute, the costs for daily transportation also can add up.


Government student loans are not the only financial product available to students. Private student lines of credit are becoming a popular alternative with financially strapped students, as 15 per cent of Canadian post-secondary students use these products, Statistics Canada said. “The biggest mistake students can make is putting their university expenses on a credit card,” said Roberta Hague, Bank of Nova Scotia vice-president of retail lending services.


She encourages students to ask their family for money before they take out a loan and to check out the bank’s on-line program, the Scotia Reality Check calculator for students. The Student Life page at scotiabank.ca gives students information to help them budget during their university career based on their school program and accommodations.


Another tool is the Web site studentawards.com, a searchable database of information for finding scholarships across Canada, with over 650,000 registered student members.



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