University should not be financially debilitating

The Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) is one of many university student unions taking part in Debt-Free Degree, a campaign organized by the University Students’ Council at Western University and the Undergraduates of Canadian Research-Intensive Universities coalition. The campaign’s goal is to advocate for financial accessibility within post-secondary institutions. According to its website, 54 per cent of Canadian graduates finish their degrees with student debt, and 45 per cent end up owing $25,000 or more. Student debt can be stressful and at times debilitating, and can impact things like one’s credit score. In turn, the campaign calls for doubling government investment in the Canada Student Grant program and changing the Canadian student loans grace period from six months to two years.

The statistics provided by the campaign are abhorrent, especially when social pressures paint university as necessary to succeed in one’s career, leaving students with seemingly no choice but to take on debt, which can be debilitating for those with or without parental support. This phenomenon should no longer be normalized. Therefore, McGill students should call for better government policies, including those proposed by Debt-Free Degree, and McGill must do more to make itself accessible to students regardless of their financial background.

Between tuition costs, extra fees in certain specialized programs, and the cost of rent, groceries, and other necessities, university is staggeringly unaffordable. While not mandatory in first year, McGill housing is typically seen as a rite of passage and generally costs far more than an average apartment in Montreal. All of these costs are on the rise—McGill’s recent international student tuition hike and rising costs of living in the city are indicative of an upward trend that threatens to force even more students into debt to finance their studies.

McGill’s complicity in this crisis goes beyond raising costs. On top of requiring students to pay exorbitant amounts of money to access the institution, the university also fails to provide students with sufficient means to ease their financial burden. The university’s scholarship opportunities almost exclusively reward those with extremely high grades.

Perhaps such high standards would be more permissible if McGill’s need-based initiatives offered more security, but this is not the case. Work study positions require students to be receiving all possible government aid, generally meaning that they have already taken on the highest possible debt level. Further, many scholarships and aid programs require students to have a certain GPA or take a certain number of classes to be eligible. All of these restrictions make accessing aid extremely difficult, and force students into precarious or emotionally taxing positions before they can receive support.

While Canadian tuition prices are comparatively less expensive than the United States’ exorbitant ones, this argument allows Canadian post-secondary institutions to justify education costs that are nevertheless inaccessible and unaffordable. For this reason, the success of the Debt-Free Degree campaign is crucial. Expanding awareness of the issue, especially when it comes to policymakers, is the first step, and the campaign’s proposed policy changes is a move in the right direction. 

However, achieving substantive long-term change requires a collective rethinking of the entire notion of student debt. It should not be normal for students to have to sacrifice financial security before they even start their careers to gain access to that career in the first place. This attitude is dangerous, and debt will continue to pile on unless governments and post-secondary institutions enact change. More radical policy proposals like universal student debt cancellation are dismissed as unrealistic, but popular support and government pressure can eventually make them a reality. 

It is not normal that so many must deal with overwhelming debt at such a young age. Students can benefit from demanding better from McGill and advocate for policies that help alleviate the financial burden of attending university. Students are more than just funding opportunities for post-secondary institutions, and it is time that policy reflects that. 

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