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Scholarships, bursaries, loans, oh my .....

Globe and Mail Update

For many first-time university students, a lesson in dollars — and sense — is exactly what's needed when it comes to preparing for the rising cost of a postsecondary education in Canada.

With tuition fees climbing and student debt levels soaring, cobbling together enough money to finance a university education can be overwhelming.

Jen Sugar, a financial aid supervisor at Carleton University, has three pieces of advice for students hoping to cover some of their costs with money from scholarships, bursaries, student loans and work-study programs: Start early, do your homework and be realistic.

"You can't wake up in Grade 12 and think 'Wow, I need to find a way to fund $10,000 for this year,'-" Ms. Sugar warns.

Undergraduate students will pay an average of $4,172 in tuition fees for the 2004-05 academic year, up from $4,018 the year before and almost triple the $1,464 in 1990-91, says a recent report by Statistics Canada.

In 2002, average annual expenditures (including tuition) for a student doing undergraduate studies in Canada totalled more than $12,000, according to the Educational Policy Institute, a think tank based in Toronto and Washington.

Almost half of the postsecondary graduates in the class of 2000 left school owing money for their education. Statistics Canada also reports that the average government student debt owed at graduation is about $19,500 — up 26 per cent for students with bachelor degrees who graduated in 1996 and a 76-per-cent increase from those who graduated in 1990.

"Typically, the average student is making it work from a variety of different sources — so you might have a student who's coming in with a little bit of a scholarship getting a bursary, getting a loan and working part-time," said Ms. Sugar.

According to the University Report Card, only a handful of Canadian universities scored top marks in the financial assistance category.

Students rated Carleton, which handed out more than $10-million last year in scholarships and bursaries, one of the best universities when it comes to financial awards.

Depending on their grade point average, students at the Ottawa-based university can qualify for annual, renewable assistance ranging from $1,000 to $4,000.

In addition to scholarships offered by universities and colleges, many students are often surprised to discover a variety of other places where they can apply for financial awards.

In the 2002-03 academic year, for example, the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation distributed almost 95,000 millennium bursaries ranging from $1,500 to $4,500 per postsecondary student.

Banks, large corporations and interest groups such as the Boys and Girls Club of Canada and the Automotive Industries Association of Canada also offer financial awards.

The trick to finding these scholarships, says Toronto-based high school principal Tracey Parish, is to do a little extra digging.

"I say to the kids, 'Choose your scholarships carefully. What describes you best?' If you're into social justice, don't apply for an athletics award. There's something for everyone."

Ms. Parish recommends high-school students begin to build a portfolio for themselves as early as Grade 10 to allow plenty of time to collect reference letters, build volunteer experience and complete application packages. "Kids don't know how to market themselves. They don't know how to explain what they do well."

Despite what many of her students believe, Ms. Parish adds, qualifying for a scholarship is not all about marks. Many require volunteer work, participation in extracurricular activities or athletic achievement. Others are specifically targeted to students who are members of a particular group.

"Sometimes your grandfather fought in World War One and the [veteran's] association might have a scholarship," she points out. "Or your parents belong to a particular union that offers financial assistance to their employees' kids."

For those students who don't qualify for financial awards or who have left the application process until the last minute, it's always a good idea to have a back-up plan:

"Expectations are not in line with reality both in the realm of scholarships, bursaries and student loans," Ms. Sugar says.

A recent study by the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation found that while two-thirds of parents expect their children to get scholarships, only one in three actually do.

As a result, more and more students are relying on family support, student loans and part-time jobs in order to finance their university or college degrees.

Heather Cummings, who helps first-year students at the University of Western Ontario manage the transition from high school to university, advises students to complete a sample budget and to have a "candid conversation" with their parents well in advance of the school term.

"Once students understand there's no 'Bank of Mom and Dad' opening for business some time in November, which is when most of our students go broke, they've got the information they need to make better choices," she said.

First-year students living in residence at Western are told they should expect to spend an additional $150 a month in personal expenses, on top of costs for accommodation, food, tuition and books.

To help lessen the financial load, many students are also turning to government-subsidized work-study programs that allow eligible participants to work on campus to earn money towards their education.

Students gave Laval University's work-study program top marks in this year's University Report Card.

More than 1,000 students at the Quebec City university qualified for work-study positions last year, earning them the chance to pocket more than $2,300 per fall and winter semesters, based on a maximum of 250 hours.

Israel Lalande, a third-year chemical engineering student at Laval earned more than $5,000 from his work-study job at a chemistry lab this past summer. In addition to the valuable work experience his job offered, he said the money he earned was a life saver when it came to making ends meet.

"I don't receive any money from my parents," the 22-year-old says. "With this money, I'm able to study and live. I'm not rich — but it's a student life."

Government loans are also an important source of income for students who may not qualify for merit-based scholarships or those looking to supplement the income they're already receiving from bursaries and work-study programs.

Murray Baker, author of The Debt-Free Graduate, How to Survive College or University Without Going Broke, recommends students turn to federal or provincial government loans before considering a private bank loan or student line of credit.

"The biggest advantage of [government] loans of course is that you're not paying interest while you're a student, whereas once you get in to a line of credit ..... you have to start paying interest off right away," he said.

In Ontario, students can qualify for up to $9,350 in government loans — the maximum amount for a single student with no dependants.

For students who opt for a bank loan, Mr. Murray said it's important to pay off the highest-interest loans first and to consolidate any non-government or credit card debts.

Credit cards, he adds, are rarely a good idea for first-year students who are "still trying to figure out the budgeting process."

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