02/29/2016 10:45 EST | Updated 03/01/2017 05:12 EST

Free Tuition For Low-Income Students Is An Investment In Our People And Ontario

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Six multi-ethnic friend graduates excitedly wait for their name to be called during graduation ceremony. Mixed-race girl looks back at camera. School building background.

Over 10 days in January of last year, I visited college and university campuses all across Ontario.

Hearing directly from students about issues they care deeply about was a great experience. Young people across Ontario are bright, ambitious and hard-working. They wanted to talk about a variety of things, from the environment, to the changing economy, to how we're helping workers save more for retirement.

But they especially wanted to talk about the challenges they face in pursuing their education after high school.

They told me about the mounting financial pressures they face, about the sacrifices low-income and single parents make to give their children opportunities they never had, and about juggling work and school and still graduating with a heavy burden of student debt.

Just as important as what I heard on campus is what I didn't hear -- from all those young people who didn't go on to college or university after high school -- and whose options in life will be forever limited because of that.

As a premier whose top priority is to ensure everyone can get a good job, it's my job to fix these problems. It's my job to erase any worries people have that a college or university education is out of reach. And it's my job to make it easier for more young people to continue learning and pursuing their passions after high school.

That's why, as announced in last week's Ontario 2016 Budget, we are making the single-largest modernization of student financial assistance in the history of our province.

More than 125,000 students will get more upfront grant support than under the current program.

We are transforming student assistance to provide free college and university tuition to eligible students from low-income families and provide better, more upfront financial support to students all across Ontario.

Beginning in the 2017-18 school year, existing student assistance programs will be replaced by a single, new program called the Ontario Student Grant, which will make the whole system fairer and easier to navigate. More than 125,000 students will get more upfront grant support than under the current program.

Average college and university tuition will be free for students with financial needs whose family income is $50,000 or less and tuition will be more affordable for middle-income families.

In fact, tuition will be free for more than half of students from families with annual incomes of $83,000 or less. Students from families with incomes of less than $50,000 will have no provincial student debt.

To ensure everyone has the opportunity to flourish -- no matter their circumstance or stage of life -- this new Ontario Student Grant will provide additional support for full-time mature and married students.

We are also working to remove non-financial barriers to post-secondary education, because that's how the Ontario Student Grant will achieve its maximum impact and help people of all backgrounds and income levels participate in our knowledge economy.

So, what does Ontario get by levelling the playing field so that everyone can afford to go to college or university? We get an even more highly skilled workforce in an even fairer society.

Ontario's highly skilled workforce is one of our greatest competitive advantages.

In 2014, 66 per cent of Ontario adults had a post-secondary credential, up from 56 per cent in 2002 and higher than the rates for any country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

I know this is one of our greatest strengths, because I hear it all the time -- from business owners and from overseas companies looking to invest here.

As we continue to transition to a more knowledge-based economy, our workers will need higher education and specialized skills for good job opportunities. According to some projections, seven out of 10 future new jobs in Canada will be in high skilled or management occupations.

We are well positioned to meet or exceed our target of having 70 per cent of Ontario adults having a post-secondary credential by 2020. Still -- we always need to be improving access and affordability.

So the Ontario Student Grant is not only the right thing to do -- it's the smart thing to do.

Our government's number one priority is to grow the economy and create jobs because that's the best way we can help people day-to-day. As our plan continues to invest in infrastructure and in a low-carbon economy driven by innovative, high-growth, export-oriented businesses, the Ontario Student Grant will help more people get and create those jobs of the future.

It's an investment that our government is proud to make.

Kathleen Wynne is the Premier of Ontario

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