New Report: Provincial Borders May Cost You Thousands

Think we all have equal access to post-secondary education in Canada? You’re wrong if your answer is “yes.”

In her July 2014 report, It’s Complicated: An Interprovincial Comparison of Student Financial Aid, grad student Jordan MacLaren finds “appalling inequities” in the resources available to students, depending on where they live.

The result can be higher student debt for you or your kids if you’re living in the ‘wrong’ region.

MacLaren, a student in Carleton’s Master of Social Work program, wrote her report while fulfilling a practicum with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), a national policy research body.

It was outside her scope to measure how this inequality affects post-secondary attendance. But her report states that the amount of debt borne by Canadian students is impacted by variable provincial aid policies as well as by “enormous differences in tuition between provinces.” 


"The question of provincial differences in financial aid is a very personal one to me,” she explained when I asked her motivation for writing this report. “I grew up in Quebec and completed my undergraduate degree in Ontario. When I applied to Quebec for aid, I wasn't eligible for assistance and my parents were expected to contribute the majority of my funding.”

Having grown up along the Quebec-Ontario border, MacLaren tried a small experiment.

“I thought I’d see what I might have been eligible for if I had lived just 20 minutes away in another province. When I put my information into their calculator, I discovered that in Ontario, my parents weren't expected to contribute to my education at all, based on their income and I would have received thousands of dollars in loans and grants.”

Understandably, that discovery stayed with her. “If there could be such a great difference between two provinces, I wondered whether my experience was a fluke or if that level of variability in access to aid existed across the country.”

Her subsequent work, which fills a critical gap in post-secondary research, revealed that this personal experience was not a fluke. Overall, students in Canada’s northern territories have higher levels of grant-based aid than do students in the south. And, in the south, all provinces provide different levels and systems of funding for post-secondary students. These, in turn, affect educational access and debt.

Our lack of national standards may be old news to regional governments. But the findings in It’s Complicated should be eye-opening for students and their parents.

In her report, MacLaren describes Canada's student provincial financial aid systems as “complex to the point of incredulity." 

She’s not exaggerating. Canada’s chaotic student aid programs led me to start the Student Finance 101 website 15 years ago, since students were tearing their hair out. I’m sorry to see in this report that little has changed.

There’s only one benefit to Canada’s convoluted system: voters can’t see what’s going on! To quote from the report, “The combination of federal, provincial and joint administered student financial aid programs are inherently complex, lack transparency, and thus, remain removed from public scrutiny and discussion.”

Fortunately, MacLaren’s work makes it easy for readers to compare Canada-wide. Many of the report’s 50 pages went to graphics such as the ‘decision trees’ in theProvincial Programs section. These illustrate the steps each province takes to decide a student’s financial aid. See the sample below: Ontario’s Decision Tree, Part One.


Complexity is one of the factors MacLaren measures, based on the steps in those decision trees. On this scale, Ontario, Alberta and Quebec end up as Canada’s worst examples, with Ontario getting special mention.

As an added barrier, MacLaren mentions unreliable aid calculators on the Quebec and Ontario websites. These, she writes, “often provide an incorrect result, which may deter students from attending university or college at all.”

Of course, aid complexity and dodgy calculators challenge students because they discourage and confuse. But there are other hurdles for Canadians seeking post-secondary education. These include costs and provincial funding formulas.

It’s Complicated includes a Loan Reduction Strategy section that outlines the variety of provincial programs now used to cut student debt. MacLaren considers provincial grant programs to be “the largest contributor to debt reduction.”

While such programs vary widely, they now exist in all provinces except Alberta. “Alberta’s approach,” states the report, “stands in stark contrast in that it has no loan reduction strategy whatsoever and allows students to accumulate the largest amount of provincial debt (up to $61,600 over the course of a four year degree).”

Personally, I think Canada’s varying student loan interest rates also play a key role in student debt levels. But the data sifting required for It’s Complicated must have been enormous. The impact of interest rates would probably require a study in itself.

And since our aid systems are “complex to the point of incredulity,” I understand why MacLaren had to vary graphs in the Provincial Programs part of her report. When we spoke during her research phase, I got the impression that rounding up comparative data was something like herding cats underwater.

“That's exactly what it felt like,” she laughed when I raised it later. “The reason I used different parameters in the various graphs was to highlight the information that was relevant to each specific program. Because there were so many differences, I couldn't pick a standardized graph that would be meaningful in each province.”

Still, readers will find standardized data on funding patterns and program complexity in the earlier parts of her report. I was especially interested in Figure 1, where educational costs are compared and bar graphs illustrate each province’s breakdown of funding by loans, grants and student/ family contributions.

Unfortunately, thanks to frequent changes to aid programs across Canada, these graph breakdowns may only represent the 2013-14 financial aid award year. Still, MacLaren has made an important contribution by capturing this slice of time.

The CCPA, she says, was “the perfect place” to do her project. She worked under the supervision of CCPA Education Director Erika Shaker, whose Missing Pieces reports have long been featured on this website. Even so, “I had very little to go on when starting… there's a total gap in research on the differences between provincial aid programs.”

Now she hopes to see more gaps filled. “I think the most important research yet to be done relates to access. I’d like to see data on how much private debt students are accumulating, whether they've qualified for OSAP or not. Unfortunately, my report can't address whether students’ needs are being met.”

You can read It’s Complicated for free. Just download from this link at www.

Printed copies may be ordered through the CCPA National Office for $10.