Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Banker at the Schoolhouse Door

Last week, Ontario Premier Dalton McGunity found himself the target of student protests. The issue was university tuition. Perhaps he was surprised. After all, he is the father of three sons who are attending university and he faces the same tuition bills as the rest of us, times three. Moreover, his government injected 6.2 million dollars into higher education two years ago. And the Liberals also froze university tuitions for two years, only lifting the freeze this September, when tuitions increased 4.6%

But, as Carol Goar pointed out in the Toronto Star this week, student enrollment in Ontario universities is running twenty-three percent ahead of government projections. Students were listening when they were told that seventy percent of Canadian jobs now require some form of post secondary education.

The real problem is that the cost of going to university has increased astronomically in the last forty years. When I entered university forty years ago, my tuition and fees amounted to $585 a year. At Trent University, from which one of our sons graduated last year, incoming freshmen paid $5,557.55 this past September. It's a little cheaper at the University of Toronto, from which our oldest son graduated almost four years ago. There, incoming freshmen paid $5,176.30 this past September. If you live in a small rural community, as we do, the cost is considerably more, given what it costs to live away from home.

But, if your children plan on attending a post graduate professional school, the costs are absolutely stratospheric. Goar points out that when McGunity attended law school at the University of Ottawa back in the late seventies, he paid $780 a year in tuition. The same program now costs $8,500 a year. And that's a bargain. This year at Osgoode Hall, the law school at York University, tuition will set you back $13,966. Next year it will cost you $15,116. At the U of T this year, tuition in the Faculty of Law is $17,280. And if you want to get an MBA at Toronto's Rotman School of Management, tuition is $27,000 a year. At Queens, it costs $2000 to apply for an MBA, then an additional $28,000 a year.

One assumes that these tuition fees are predicated on the certainty that the graduates of these programs will be earning top salaries as CEO's or their equivalents. After all, as Senator Jim Webb of Virginia recently pointed out, the average CEO now makes in a day what it takes his or her average employee over a year to make.

What has happened? Well, as Bob Rae noted in his report to the Ontario government, the expansion of higher education in Ontario occurred before Medicare. Since then, the health system has been draining off money which used to go to colleges and universities. Rae suggested that more student aid be made available in the form of loans. The government would underwrite the loans; but, essentially, the private sector would be given an opportunity to expand its loan base.

This is a departure from the policy of direct investment which Ontario governments used to make in higher education -- when Mr. McGunity went to school in Ottawa and I went to school in Montreal. And it has not been just universities which have seen a decrease in direct investment from the government. One of the major "reforms" which the Mike Harris government brought to Ontario's education system was the elimination of grade thirteen in high schools. Up until then, students could attend grade thirteen and get a general degree after attending university for three years. It is more than just a little ironic that these reforms were made during the stewardship of an education minister who dropped out of high school in grade eleven to first work for and then run his father's waste management company.

All of this is of a piece. And it is a policy which has been aided and abetted by governments of all stripes. The mantra for some time now has been, in Ronald Reagan's words, " Government is not part of the problem, it is the problem." Thus, government has left it to the private sector to fund what it used to fund. And the trade off has been lower taxes. But twenty-five years of such "enlightened" policies have led to the wealth gap, which I have written about in previous posts. What that means for university students of modest means is that they will graduate with a large mortgage over their heads.

When I went to graduate school, my father cosigned for a loan which represented 13% of my annual income before taxes. When our son graduated from graduate school, his accumulated debt amounted to 107% of his annual income before taxes -- this despite roughly $65,000 in scholarships and over $50,000 from us.

I do not begrudge the costs. Luckily, we were able to pay them; and scholarship money was available. Still, he had to borrow alot of money, for which he is now on the hook. And someone is very happily adding to his or her company's bottom line because my son wanted an education. What about those other hard working folks who want their children to succeed -- or the children themselves -- who don't have the financial resources to get them in the schoolhouse door and then stay there?

Higher Education has always been a privilege. The problem is that it is increasingly only available to the privileged.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gray,

I enjoyed your article, but it raised a few questions, which I will now, as I have the day off, inflict upon you.

There is no comparison between tuition fees these days and forty years ago. To put things into perspective, could you perhaps equate the value; people speak of currency like wine at times, and so I ask you, what is the value of five hundred eighty five 1960s dollars?

I suppose I could do this myself, but I'm not very good at math, which is why I studied literature. We are obliged to know our weaknesses as well as our strengths, aren't we?

Also, what are enrollment rates in Ontario these days? Do you know any of the figures -- application, matriculation, graduation?

If it is high, how do you think this will affect the value of an undergraduate degree? If many jobs require post-secondary, and the market is flooded with degrees, how much is each degree worth? What becomes the new separation point? When I attended university, I was frequently disappointed with how little effort it took to pass, merrily put into rhyme, "Cs and Ds still get degrees." It would seem then, that the toughest aspect of university is paying for it.

On that note, I believe that university should be free (and not just because I'm in debt to one). Also, I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to attend university. (Society has a vested interest in maintaining an educated population, yes?). However, even though everyone should be able to go, I don't think that everyone should.

I don't mean this in an elitist way. I don't want to start an argument about 'the upper echelons' and speak to people, as Saul Bellow would say, 'de haut en bas.' I don't mean this at all. A thoroughly functioning society needs to function thoroughly, that is, at every level, and perhaps some things just don't need a Liberal Arts degree. Perhaps there are some things that really don't need to be studied.

For argument's sake, let us take something in which I'm rather interested. Throughout Canada, there are a few degree granting programs for Creative Writing (Concordia, UVic, etc.) Some may argue that there is really no need to study creative writing. Though I can't say for sure, I would hazard a guess that any great writer would say that one can either write or they can't write. Why not just study literature, wherein you read and write (proper preparation, yes)? After all, if you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink, how the hell are you going to drag a masterpiece out of him? Lead him to the water and see what he does with it.

I may have strayed, but, as I said, I've the day off. I shall summarize and conclude immediately.

My question for you, Mr. Gray, is, what is the value of a university degree? If you could be so kind, figure the monetary value, or rather, cost, in equal dollar terms, between the undergraduate schooling of your generation and mine? As well, what is the 'real world' value of a degree. By this, could you address a degree's social worth, whether it's as a qualification in the workforce, or how it stratifies society; and, could you address these issues across our generations, yours and mine, when I assume there are more degree holders out there. What percentage of a population should hold a degree? If too many people are educated, does that mean that we will just a have a highly educated society, or will a university degree become the next high school diploma?

Thank you for your time. Please keep writing.