A degree of expense
When Katherine Haines, Artsci’10, graduated, she went home to Muskoka, taking with her almost $28,000 of debt.
Haines, like many Queen’s students, paid for her education with Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) loans.
Once her undergraduate degree was finished, she was tasked with repaying the money she’d borrowed, a process that begins within six months of graduation.
“It hasn’t been fun,” Katherine says of her OSAP experience, adding that she initially struggled with her payments due to the difficulty she faced in finding a job.
Haines worked as a server until August. That is when she found a job with the Great Canadian Roadshow, a company that searches Canada-wide for unique collectibles. Even so, she was late with her first OSAP payment, which incurred a late fee and has negatively affected her credit rating.
During her undergrad years Haines worked to help cover the costs of her education, and she received a bursary from Queen’s as well as a Canada Millennium Scholarship. Despite all of this, she still had trouble covering her costs.
More than three-quarters of Queen’s undergrads receive financial assistance of one form or another.
“I also got into credit card debt during university,” she says, noting that she used her credit card to fill in the gaps that her other sources of income didn’t cover.
Hainses’s advice to students who are currently receiving OSAP or other assistance is to plan wisely. “Things could have turned out better if I’d had been more aware of budgeting tools,” she says. “For some, receiving OSAP funds can seem like free money, and isn’t budgeted properly.”
More three-quarters of Queen’s undergrads receive financial assistance of one form or another. This includes 46 per cent of students who receive Queen’s scholarships, bursaries, and awards; 30 per cent who receive government loans or grants, and five per cent receive external awards.
Teresa Alm, University Registrar (Interim), says a common misconception about OSAP is that it’s entirely repayable.
“I think it’s important for students to understand that OSAP is a combination of repayable loans and non-repayable grants,” she says. “In the past decade both levels of government – federal and provincial – have invested significantly to ensure post-secondary education is accessible regardless of a student’s socio-economic background. For many students, almost half their OSAP is non-repayable.”
The Queen’s University Exit Poll, a survey of graduating students, includes a section on “Debt and Future Plans.” In 2010, 54 per cent of students who completed the survey were carrying repayable debt, which was money owed to the government, private or family lenders, and credit cards. Of those undergraduate students with debt, most had cumulative debt of less than $25,000; a small percentage reported debt of greater than $40,000.
Despite these seemingly problematic statistics, Queen’s graduates are good about repaying their debts. The average Ontario default rate for OSAP in 2010 was 7.6 per cent, while at Queen’s it was only 1.5 per cent – the lowest of any university in Ontario.
“Queen’s students are investing in their university education when they obtain OSAP,” Alm says. “Clearly, our students who have accessed OSAP are demonstrating their ability and willingness to repay their loans once they graduate.”
Suzie Ingram, ConEd’12, also subscribes to the notion that government loans – and by extension a university education itself – are worthy investments. Suzie uses OSAP and Queen’s bursaries to pay for school. She says that without this assistance, her university experience would have been vastly different, or perhaps even non-existent.
“I probably wouldn’t be able to be at school without [an OSAP loan],” Ingram admits, adding that the volunteer activities and varsity sports she participates in would certainly be out of the question if she were forced to pay her way through university. “It would cause a lot of stress to make up the money on my own.”
Her experiences and those of Katherine Haines and other students underscore the need for increased student aid, which the administration at Queen’s has earmarked as a top priority in fundraising goals and a defined need to be derived from philanthropic support of the University.
Ingram has no doubts that her education, and the challenges she faced in paying for it, will ultimately be rewarded. “I’ve wanted to be a teacher since I was five, so OSAP is a means to an end. I love Queen’s, and I love being at school,” she says. “Now that I’m going to graduate as a teacher, I’ll get to be at school for the rest of my life. That makes it all worthwhile."