According to the data, which track tuition costs from 1975 to 2013, the average number of minimum-wage hours needed to pay for an undergraduate degree in 1975 was 230. That number went up nearly 2½ times to 570 by 2013.
Professional faculties have seen the steepest increases. A dentistry student would have had to work 286 hours at a minimum-wage job in 1975 to afford the tuition fee then of $664.
In 2013, that same student had to labour for 1,711 hours to pay annual tuition costs of $17,324.
The national think-tank acquired tuition data from 1975 to 2013 and compiled a database that compares faculty costs, provincial variations and national tuition cost averages.
Armine Yalnizyan, a senior economist at the centre who led the project, said while tuition increases are nothing new, this data provides a historical look at how post-secondary policy decisions can affect university affordability in Canada.
“We say to our kids, 'Go to university if you want a good professional degree,' but that’s getting more and more difficult to do,” she said.
Paul Davidson, president of the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, said today's students have access to a very high-quality education.
“I get concerned when we tell a whole generation of people that you're screwed right out of the gate,” he said.
“I think Canada has an outstanding post-secondary education system.”
Number of work hours, by province
This table shows the number of minimum-wage work hours required to pay for university tuition, broken down by province.
(Source: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives)
Provincial increases vary widely
Ontario requires the greatest amount of minimum-wage work to pay tuition, going from 260 hours in 1975 to 708 hours four decades later.
Saskatchewan’s tuition, measured in the number of minimum-wage hours, went up more than threefold.
Newfoundland and Labrador saw the smallest jump over the years — 16 per cent — through a combination of minimum-wage increases and lower tuition rates.
That’s equivalent to about a week more at minimum wage, according to Yalnizyan.
Manitoba’s rate of tuition went up from 183 minimum-wage hours to 366 — a 100 per cent increase.
University of Manitoba student Aurora Hares, 25, told CBC News she knows how hard it is to balance finances while pursuing a university education.
Hares will complete her bachelor of science degree this month. It took her seven years, and she had to work a full-time job at a hardware chain store on top of taking multiple courses.
She said some days she worked more than 12 hours and was getting migraines from the stress.
“You are always on this treadmill, trying to catch up with what you are doing,” she said. “You have no downtime.”
Hares said her heavy course load and full-time job proved too much for her this year. She quit her job to concentrate on school, a decision that came with financial consequences.
“It makes me anxious to think about it,” she said. “How much do I owe? How will I pay it back?”
Yalnizyan said the data show that when governments decide to do something about education costs, they can make a difference.
“We really do need governments to drive down costs, but to be able to do that they need the federal government at the table too,” she said.
"It would be wonderful to see the provinces work together to develop a national mission to make it easier for students to study."
“Tuition is a always a concern,” said Davidson. “But we have to make sure that we have an education system that’s well- funded, that’s high-quality, and delivers the results that students and their parents expect.”
Davidson points out that the data set doesn’t reflect how many students are accessing financial assistance on offer by the universities and the provincial governments.
“Forty per cent of students get financial assistance from the institution and, in some cases … as much as 60 per cent of the students in the institution get some kind of discount on their tuition,” he said.
Professional degrees see largest jump
Tuition costs for degrees in arts, social sciences and education more than doubled, but the most dramatic increases occur in professional degrees like law, medicine and dentistry.
Dentistry took six times more minimum-wage hours to pay for tuition, while law and medicine required in excess of four times more hours.
That’s a shift ArmineYalnizyan says has not been evident in previous years.
“It wasn’t so hard to become a lawyer or a dentist or a doctor,” said Yalnizyan.
Jack Fingrut, a Toronto dentist who graduated in the mid-1970s, said he paid his $5,400 tuition through summer jobs and did not take on any debt.
“It was a lot at the time,” he said. “It seemed quite expensive, but I was able to manage."
He added, “I didn't get help from my parents because my father was older. I just had to do it myself.”
Fingrut's son, Daniel Fingrut, graduated with a dentistry degree in 2012. He said he had to acquire a student loan to make ends meet.
The younger Fingrut said tuition was a small part of what he had to pay. Equipment, clinic fees, and other incidentals can rack up a hefty bill for the degree, he said.
He acquired a $150,000 line of credit from his bank in order to make ends meet.
“Private banks are actually pretty good about giving private lines of credit now for dental students,” he said. “Funding is available — of course, it's borrowed money.”
“Paying it back is a bit more of the problem,” he added.
'People will definitely give it a second thought'
Daniel Fingrut paid back his debt in two years by working at his father’s dental practice, but he said not all students are so lucky and looming debt may dissuade others from entering the profession.
“People will definitely give it a second thought for sure,” he said. “It's potentially a very big challenge to pay it back.”
Back in Winnipeg, Hares said she would like to pursue a veterinary medicine degree post-graduation, but she wonders how she’ll manage the costs.
“Is my dream of going into DVM realistic?” she said. “I don’t know because the finances don’t say they are right now."
“The worst thing that we can have [is] to have young people not pursue post-secondary education because it's too expensive and the debt burden is too significant.” said Francis Fong, a senior economist with the TD Bank Group.
"That’s the opposite of where we want to end up."
Fong said Canada’s economy is dependent on how skilled the labour force is and looming student debt can dissuade students from pursuing higher education.
“Policy should ensure that we contain overall post-secondary education costs to ensure there’s affordability out there," he said.
Yalnizyan said the burden on students is too high.
"We're raising tuitions," she said, "making it harder to find a job in the first place and work enough hours to be able to work hard at becoming the best they can be."
She added, "We understand what the risk is to making university education too far out of reach for too many of our young people."