04/16/2014 05:33 EDT | Updated 06/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Student Debt Is Canada's Debt

by: Craig and Marc Kielburger

When Jessica McCormick graduated from high school, she was all but forced to leave home to a find a province where tuition fees wouldn't break her.

It was 2006 -- the eve of the global recession -- and her working-class parents in Cape Breton couldn't come up with the cash to send McCormick and her sister to university in Nova Scotia. So she went to the only place she could afford -- Memorial University in Newfoundland, where tuition fees are the lowest in Canada. She still took out $10,000 in student loans. McCormick's sister, who stayed in Nova Scotia for post-graduate study in gerontology, owes $30,000.

But the sisters' combined $40,000 debt is a drop in the bucket. Canadian college and university graduates owe the government a mind-blowing $15 billion in student loans.

The cost of education varies widely from province to province. For students like McCormick, this discrepancy limits university options and handicaps them as they enter their adult lives, thus reinforcing financial and regional inequality. Canada enshrined in law the principle that all Canadians must have equal access to affordable health care no matter where they live, or how much money they have. Surely an educated population is as valuable as a healthy one? Why are would-be university students penalized because of where they live?

This month, Canadian students finish exams and begin hunting for summer jobs. If they're in an arts program in Newfoundland or Quebec, they must earn almost $4,000 to cover tuition and fees next year. But if they're studying in Ontario, Nova Scotia, or British Columbia, they've got the summer to raise at least $8,000. A student working the counter at Taco Bell for minimum wage would have to work eight hours a day, seven days week, for almost the entire summer to cover tuition, never mind the cost of specialized or technical degrees. And none of this includes room and board. Midnight food court runs and cramped residence rooms aren't free.

Students have a responsibility to work and pay for at least some of their education. Also a responsibility, when choosing their college or university program, to think about whether they are choosing a field of study where there is a real demand for jobs.

But governments have a responsibility to keep education affordable.

Until the 1990s, government funding covered 80 per cent of the cost of education. Today, it's 50 per cent, says McCormick, who is now Chair of the Canadian Federation of Students, a national advocacy group. As a result, 59 per cent of Canada's graduating class of 2012 walked in capes and cardboard hats to collect degrees in one hand and student loan bills in the other. The average amount owed was $24,579, according to the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada.

Over half of this generation start their adult lives already owing more than the cost of a mid-size coupe. When their parents graduated decades earlier, $25,000 could have paid for a small house. Now, debt is limiting young people's ability to buy anything.

"Because of debt, graduates are putting off starting families, or buying homes," says McCormick.

And the cruelest irony? With the interest on loans, the students from low-income families, who are forced to take out the biggest loans, end up paying more for their education than the richer students who do not need to borrow. Education should reduce the economic inequality gap, not widen it.

McCormick tells us debt also limits employment opportunities. Young people from smaller towns or rural communities have no choice but to move to the big city where jobs are more plentiful. Would-be entrepreneurs with dreams of launching businesses must put their dreams on the shelf. They can't afford the start-up costs or risks involved. Furthermore, Statistics Canada found those with student debt are far less likely to build up savings or make long-term investments.

There are some national programs to help all Canadian students pay for education and deal with their student loans. The Canada Student Grants program gives out more than 300,000 non-repayable grants every year -- but only a few thousand per student, not enough to even cover tuition. And the Canada Student Loans Program assists those who aren't earning enough to make their monthly loan payments. The CSLP will reduce or stop payments, and stop adding interest, until the graduate's income improves.

Beyond that, when it comes to education costs and student debt: it's every province for itself. In addition to freezing tuitions, Newfoundland is replacing student loans with grants they don't have to pay back. Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have stopped charging interest on loans. B.C., meanwhile, eliminated its grant program in 2004.

Affordable education is a national issue. Before student debt reaches astronomical new highs, our federal and provincial governments must work together to develop a national solution.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools. For more information, visit


Canadian Student Debt Expectations: BMO Survey 2013