Photo: Walking through Pine Grove Forest, Ottawa, ON
Right now I have a pretty fantastic work opportunity being presented to me for a month-long field project in August. It’s something I’d really like to do, not only for the project itself but for the associated experience building specific skills (in this case supervisory skills) that would go a long way to helping me continue building my career, especially for when I’ve finished my Master’s degree. However, they can only pay me $1500. Which may sound like a lot, but when you have rent, car costs (car payments, insurance, gas, etc), general bills, and student loans to pay back, $1500 doesn’t really add up to a lot. Especially when the other earning power in your household comes from a PhD student stipend. It’s put me in the situation all students seem to face today – if this opportunity can help me build my career for a better future, is it worth the possible debt now?
This got me thinking about money and debt for the average Canadian student. Our generation, the 20-35 year olds, struggle tremendously. 42% of us still live at home because we can’t afford to leave. Especially in cities like Vancouver or Toronto, where living costs are insanely unaffordable (I’m from Vancouver and going to school in Toronto – I know these cities are insanely unaffordable). Wages are down, living expenses are up, and we’re expected to have some sort of post-secondary degree in order to have even the slightest chance at landing a job that can help us get out of the debt we’ve accrued in in pursuing that post-secondary education (By 2020, for example, the BC government is predicting that 35% of all jobs will require post-secondary educations). Money and debt is uncomfortable to talk about, but I want to talk about it. I have struggled with financial troubles and still struggle with financial issues and the fact is that the vast majority of Canadian students do. It’s something that leads to stress, anxiety, anger, and tears. I want to talk about it because I want you, the reader, to find comfort in the knowledge that you’re not alone with your struggles. As I said in my first blog post, we’re all in this together.
It’s easy to feel like the Canadian government has set post-secondary students up to fail. The right to education is included in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the necessity of a good education has been pounded into our heads by our government, and the generation before us, since birth. Our parents lived in a time where they could pay their tuition and associated costs through part-time jobs and summer jobs. And there is somewhat of an attitude towards our generation that it’s still possible to do that. Along with the “get a job” or “get a better job” attitude. News flash: youth unemployment rates are sitting at just under 30% because there are no jobs for us to get. Life has changed dramatically for our generation, making it nearly impossible to obtain a post-secondary education without some sort of debt by the end of it and with no guarantee that you’ll even be able to find a job in your field once you’re finished. According to a 2015 report issued by the Canadian Federation of Students, tuition rates for 4-year undergraduate degrees have risen dramatically over the past 23 years. In 1990 the average student paid $1271. In 2013 the average tuition cost $5772. Don’t think you’re saving yourself any trouble by staying at home and going to a school close to home. In 2011 this would have cost the average student $55,000. But by 2030 (if you were born in 2011), this cost is expected to rise to $102,286. $139,380 if you decide to leave home and add on living expenses. Why the dramatic increases in tuition? Since the 1970’s, public funding for universities has dropped over 90%, forcing universities to raise their tuition rates and fees to make up for this loss of funding, leaving Canadian students with an average of $28,500 of debt by the end of their undergraduate degree. And don’t forget the interest you’ll have to pay in repaying your student loans, which could easily add another $10,000 on top.
These debt levels also vary according to your degree/field. 30% of medical students, for example, graduate with over $100,000 in debt, 13% with over $160,000. Graduate students often receive funding from their universities, but that’s not a guaranteed thing, especially for Master’s students (take a browse through Reddit’s r/gradschool and you’ll see an astonishing amount of students saying they’ve received an offer for grad school but won’t be getting funding). If you don’t receive funding, are you really prepared to turn down an offer for a Master’s degree or PhD? Or are you willing to put yourself into debt, or add onto the debt you already have? Especially when those higher level degrees can significantly increase your earning power in the working world? If you do receive funding, is it going to cover all your associated costs? Us archaeology students, for example, often have field work we need to pay for. Grants and scholarships are becoming few and far between and, with stricter application requirements (extremely high GPA requirements for example, such as the new 95% grade average for the QE2 scholarship), are harder to obtain. I’ve been fortunate to have been offered a full-ride Master’s position, where my tuition and fees are paid for plus I get additional money for living expenses. This is not without some sacrifice, however. My funding is only offered for 1 year, meaning I have had to opt for the 1 year Master of Arts program instead of the 2 year Master of Science program I would have liked to complete. I simply can’t afford the risk of not obtaining a grant or scholarship for my second year.
There is no easy solution to this situation. Universities are business that have to find the money to keep themselves operating, and the government can’t easily make changes to benefit us students without sacrificing the money from elsewhere. For now, we students who are dedicated to pursuing an education and career in a field we’re passionate about, we have to keep on trudging. Student debt has become an unfortunate part of our life and is basically a requirement for obtaining a post-secondary education. You have every right to feel angry, frustrated, stressed out, and sad. Go ahead and shed some tears, but don’t give up. Let your passion become your determination. Life will get better, that much I promise you. I can say that because I’m starting to see the light at the end of my tunnel. I have struggled, and struggled, and continue to struggle, but more and more opportunities are opening up. Good things come to those who persevere, work hard, and wait patiently. And most importantly of all, remember that you’re not alone in this.
Students today are graduating with more debt than ever, leading many of us to struggle to make ends meet just to obtain the very education that’s required for many careers today. The numbers are staggering and will make your jaw drop at the costs associated with going to a post-secondary education, and it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better. University costs today (including living costs) are anywhere between $55,000 and $84,000 and the average Canadian student is graduating with over $28,000 in debt. Over $100,000 of debt if you’re a medical student. It’s enough to make a person cry, and many of us do. Let these numbers show you, however, that you’re not the only one struggling. We all are. You’re not alone with this. So work hard, keep your eyes on the goal, and good things will come your way.