Student debt hits record high

By Aida Sadr

Debt is an issue that concerns the majority of Alberta’s university students. As tuition and living costs continue to increase, so does the debt load burdening graduates. Earlier this month, the Alberta Ministry of Learning reported that in 1999/2000, the average graduate net loan debt increased by $706 from the previous year, hitting an all-time high of $18,066.

"Despite recent debt reduction efforts introduced by the government of Alberta, student debt continues to rise," said University of Calgary Students’ Union Vice-president External Duncan Wojtaszek. "In our opinion, tuition is the problem."

Statistics Canada reports that Alberta has experienced the most rapid rate of tuition increase in the country, with fees rising 208 per cent in the past decade alone.

"Average tuition in Alberta, the richest province in Canada, is $3,841 per year, the third highest in the nation," explained SU President Toby White. White fears that Alberta’s current tuition policy will make post-secondary education less accessible and leave Alberta’s institutions unable to compete with their national counterparts.

Randy Kilburn, Alberta Ministry of Learning Spokesman, does not see tuition as a problem.

"Alberta tuition fees are comparable to all other universities in Canada… the Alberta government has always ensured that tuition does not serve as barrier to accessibility," said Mr. Kilburn. "In 1998, we passed legislation, at the request of the students, that tuition revenues be capped at 30 per cent of an institution’s net operating expenses. This policy limits the amount by which an institution can annually increase tuition."

Kilburn also added that in last year’s provincial budget, student assistance was given the greatest increase in funding, receiving 22 per cent more than the previous year. Kilburn also questioned the link between rising tuition and rising student debt.

"Everyone is always talking about the tuition freeze in B.C. but debt levels are increasing more quickly there than they are here in Alberta," said Kilburn, citing that Alberta experienced a 10 per cent increase while student debt increased by 20 per cent in British Columbia.

Despite some disagreement regarding the gravity of the issue, both the Alberta government and the SU plan to address the growing problem of student debt.

"The Students’ Union is currently working to lobby Lyle Oberg to lower tuition," said Wojtaszek. "We are also working on making the government’s remission program automatic."

Currently, upon successfully completing a degree, graduates can apply to have the government remit part of their debt. Remission means the Alberta government will pay a certain portion of a student’s Alberta loan if their total provincial and federal loan exceeds $20,000 for a four-year degree.

"In 1999/2000, the average net [Alberta] indebtedness after remission was among the lowest in the country," said Kilburn.

However, not all students know about the remission program and apply for it. The SU hopes to automatize the program so more students can take advantage of it.

As for the efforts of the Alberta government to deal with student debt, Kilburn explained that the Ministry plans to continue meeting with students and faculty members, listening to their concerns and attempting to address them. An accessibility study and funding review are also underway, results of which will hopefully aid in coming up with what Kilburn calls "mutually agreeable solution."

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