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My Student Loan reveals real problems

by Archives March 10, 2004

There is the moment in the CBC Rough Cuts presentation of My Student Loan when a mature student and single mother shrugs her shoulders and tells all of Canada that she could not repay her $20,000 student loan and had no intention of paying it.

It’s every university student’s nightmare. Upon graduation, you’re unemployed, a huge debt hangs over your head, and collection agencies are hot on your tail. This is where Mike Johnston of Peterborough, Ontario found himself and in the end he directed and produced a gritty Michael Moore style documentary called My Student Loan.

My Student Loan includes Johnston’s humorous encounters with collection agency personnel, politicians, recent graduates, and even a visit to his father to borrow money.

At first, the documentary rubbed me the wrong way.

It took me eleven years, but last year I made the final installment on a student loan that dates back to January of 1989.

After my initial anger and resentment, I felt a sudden pang of sympathy. The road seemed easier 15 years ago.

In 1989 I decided to pursue an education whatever the cost. Given the choices of working the graveyard shift at McDonald’s or working the conveyor belt at Zellers, the choice was a no-brainer.

Two obstacles presented themselves right away. As a sole provider, whatever financial risk I took involved my family. I had to find a way to minimize the risk. Also, students given mature entry status are expected to complete 108 credits, 18 more than regular entry students, in order to graduate. That calculates into $1900 more in overall tuition, books and travel costs. I might have quit, being between a rock and a hard place, if were not for student loans.

That began five years of bureaucracy and just plain silliness.

In the first year I was awarded $5,000 because I was the sole provider for my family. I was impressed. It seemed to solve the problem. The second year my spouse began working again and I received only $1,390 and the same amount for the following three years. Somehow, the Government of Quebec in its illogical thinking, considered her earnings to be mine. It is the same when the government considers the parents as partners in their child’s education. I find both lines of thinking a cop-out.

Year in and year out the government expected my spouse to contribute her earnings to my tuition. In reality, that logic stressed my pocket book to a point where I was forced to work full- time and study part-time. According to Concordia’s policies, I was then automatically considered a part time student. In turn, the government requested I begin paying back what debt I had incurred. I deferred payment until I returned to full time status.

It went like that for next five years.

I am grateful for my education. I am grateful for the opportunity lent to me because of the financial options. What is troubling is that loans are there to help make getting an education easier. The time I spent working full time in order to pay for my education was directly related to illogical thinking: that my spouse could afford to contribute? And why should she?

If the government had treated me as an individual, not as a couple, I would have graduated sooner, instead of taking time off to work. Further, and this is what gets to me, I received the same amount of loans over five years that I would have received in three years. The difference, of course, is in the amount of interest I paid, and that is where My Student Loan begins to make sense-in Canada the student funding system is not consistent nationwide and neither are tuition and administration fees.

Johnston isn’t so different from his many Canadian peers, who have had to endure a 140 per cent increase in tuition fees over the past ten years. As governments look for ways to slash spending, students have borne much of the brunt of rapidly rising costs associated with post-secondary education.

I felt like I could pay off my loan. Today’s student has doubts. Basically it costs about $3,500 Canadian a year to go to school in Canada in 2004, but in Quebec $1,700 that is $500 more than what I was expected to pay.

“I already owe about $25,000 after the end of this year,” says Lobby Wien, a 26-year-old Masters student in Quebec. “That’s with a liberal amount of scholarships and bursaries to boot. I only have a year and a half to go though.”

My Student Loan was first presented the same year The Canadian Millennium Scholarship Foundation released its “Making Ends Meet: The 2001-2002 Student Financial Survey.

A key funding of the survey is that students incur an average debt of $5,600 per year, accumulating to over $20,000 total for some students. On average $13,000 is owed to the government, with the remainder owed to private benefactors.

“It’s absolutely critical that governments address this problem of increasing student debt and not only recognize student needs but act on it,” said Erin Stevenson, communications officer for the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations.

The Quebec government does not want to insert any new funding. Private donations are increasingly difficult. Someone has to pay.

Once my anger was tamed by my empathy, I began to hear the message My Student Loan was sending: students would be expected to pay one way or the other.

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