For the second year in a row, tuition fees for university education are rising faster in British Columbia than anywhere else in Canada, with an average increase of 67% in two years. Colleges are implementing even sharper increases. But is this a problem? Universities and colleges argue that higher fees are necessary to fund the demand for new spaces and ensure quality in the face of shortfalls in government funding.
A six-year tuition freeze maintained by the previous government resulted in rates that were in fact considerably below the national average. Some could argue that, while recent increases are dramatic, students in British Columbia are now simply catching up to their counterparts in the rest of Canada.
Moreover, individuals benefit financially from postsecondary education. Statistics Canada reports that in 2000, Canadian university graduates earned approximately 36% more than high school graduates, and those with postsecondary certificates earned almost 10% more. Young adults with higher levels of education also have lower unemployment rates. For most students, postsecondary education remains a worthwhile financial investment even with substantial fees.
So why worry about rapidly rising tuition? Given the financial (and other) benefits of postsecondary education, shouldn't students be expected to pay for it?
The quick answer is that they already do. Because postsecondary graduates tend to out-earn those with less education, government expenditures on postsecondary education are more than recouped by the higher level of income taxes graduates eventually pay.
Of course this is not simply as a break-even proposition. Collectively, businesses and the economy benefit from having a well-educated workforce. As our economy has restructured, a greater proportion of job openings require some form of postsecondary education. Investment in British Columbia's "human capital" is crucial for our economic development.
The real question is, do we ask students to pay for their education up front or after the fact? In B.C., the trend is clearly toward the former. High income earners have been given substantial tax cuts, direct government funding of postsecondary education is frozen, and students are being asked to make up the difference with higher tuition fees.
But from a policy standpoint, there are clear advantages to not asking individuals to pay the bulk of educational costs while they are still students. Most obviously, high up front costs make postsecondary education less accessible for those with limited financial resources.
Here we can look at the experience elsewhere in Canada as a preview to the likely effects of tuition increases in B.C.. While tuition was frozen in British Columbia for much of the '90s, it rose substantially in the rest of the country. Even after adjusting for inflation, tuition fees paid by Canadian university undergraduate arts students rose by 126 % between 1990/91 and 2000/01. Graduate and professional school tuition generally rose even more. At the same time, the postsecondary participation rate flattened for the first time since WWII. Even more troubling, a widening gap appeared between the participation rate of young people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and those from high or middle socioeconomic backgrounds.
The fact that professional programs (medicine, law, etc.) are facing much sharper tuition increases also bodes ill for social equity, since these degrees tend to open doors to the most lucrative careers. While it is possible that wealthy applicants were suddenly more qualified, it is more likely that the high fees shut out students with fewer resources.
Higher tuition fees also mean higher student debt, which may discourage students from considering fields of study that are perceived to lead to less lucrative careers. In 2000 when the tuition freeze was still in effect, 61% of full-time postsecondary students in B.C. already required financial assistance to pay for their education. And the average debt load was not insignificant: Students who completed a four-year program owed an average of $17,130. With rising tuition, both the number of students required to assume debt, and the size of that debt, will no doubt increase. Who can afford to pursue a degree in literature, social work, or early childhood development, knowing that doing so will mean years of crushing loan payments without the likelihood of secure or lucrative employment?
We all benefit from a well-educated citizenry, and it is important that funding for postsecondary education be adequate to ensure both accessibility and quality. Asking individual students to fund an ever-increasing share of postsecondary education costs may ensure well-stocked labs and libraries, but if it undermines equality, the price is too high.
In the immediate future, there will likely be no shortage of students interested in competing for postsecondary spaces in British Columbia, but rising fees mean that financial resources rather than merit will increasingly determine who is able to enter the competition.
Sylvia Fuller is the Public Interest Researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' BC Office.